Henry Petroski

 

On his book The Toothpick: Technology and Culture

Cover Interview of January 02, 2009

A close-up

One episode central to the story of the wooden toothpick in America is Charles Forster’s efforts at marketing.  After he and his chief mechanic had gotten the machinery to make a reliably and predictably good toothpick, Forster found himself with more boxes of them on hand than he could place in retail stores.  The disposable wooden toothpick was a hard sell, in large part because people had gotten along fine with making a serviceable toothpick out of anything that was handy.  Yankees were used to whittling a pick when they needed one, and the better off always carried a gold or silver toothpick in their vest pocket.

To convince people of all levels of society that they would benefit from his mass-produced product, Forster resorted to boldly deceptive marketing schemes.  He hired men and women to visit stationery and novelty stores and ask for a box of wooden toothpicks.  After a month or so of this, Forster himself would visit the same stores and peddle his wares wholesale.  The retailers naturally wanted to stock the product that everyone was asking for, and so they gave Forster orders.  Shortly afterwards, the same groups of men and women that had previously left disappointed returned to buy boxes of toothpicks, which they promptly turned in to Forster for him to return to his inventory.  This is described on pages 96 and 97 of The Toothpick.

In another scheme, Forster hired young Harvard men to have dinner on him in Boston-area restaurants.  Upon completing their meal, the students as instructed asked for wooden toothpicks, which the restaurant could not provide.  The students left loudly in a huff, vowing never again to patronize that restaurant.  Of course, Forster soon paid a visit to the establishment, offering his wares, which were gladly taken.  This story is related on pages 101 and 102 of the book.

Still another Forster marketing scheme is described on pages 105 and 106.  In this case, he reportedly went to Philadelphia during the Centennial Exposition of 1876 and hired an ostentatious wagon from which he threw boxes of his toothpicks to a cheering crowd.  Forster understood that to sell his mass-produced wooden toothpicks he had to first introduce people to them.  He did so with cleverness and flair and demonstrated how important marketing is to the success of a new product that is not an absolute necessity.