The Toothpick is a technical and cultural history of what is arguably the simplest of manufactured things. A wooden toothpick consists of a single part made of a single material and intended for a single purpose. Yet in spite of its apparent simplicity, the toothpick has a long history that is full of lessons about design, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, competition, and intellectual property—all of which are highly relevant to our global economy today.
The story of the toothpick is as old as civilization, and anthropologists have described picking one’s teeth as mankind’s oldest habit, evidence of it having been found in the form of grooves from aggressive toothpicking on two-million-year-old fossilized teeth. This book traces the evolution of the toothpick from found objects like grass stalks used in prehistoric times to the deliberately made metal, wood, and plastic tools of modern times.
The core of the book tells the story of the development of the mass production of wooden toothpicks, which was the brainchild of Charles Forster, a New Englander who worked in Brazil in the mid-nineteenth century. There, Forster noticed that natives had beautiful teeth, which he attributed to their use of handcrafted wooden toothpicks. At a time when machines were being invented for the mass production of everything from steel pins to leather shoes, Forster determined to do so for wooden toothpicks. His dream and goal was to make them so efficiently in New England that he could export them to South America at a profit.
With the monopoly guaranteed him by patent rights, and with clever marketing schemes, Forster succeeded in building a fortune on toothpick manufacture. At one time, 95 percent of all wooden toothpicks were made in Maine, and the Forster brand became known worldwide. With success came competition, however, not only domestically but also internationally. By the end of the twentieth century, American toothpick plants were having a difficult time competing with foreign products, and the last Maine factory closed about five years ago. Today, there are no wooden toothpicks made in the U.S. The story of the toothpick industry is the story of American industry generally.
This book also chronicles the way mass-produced toothpicks influenced social behavior. Changing and competing attitudes about toothpick use in public were shaped in part by the novelty of the disposable wooden toothpicks first as introduced by Charles Forster and later by their efficacy in promoting dental hygiene. Different cultural perspectives on toothpick use are also described in the book.
“By the 1880s, wooden toothpicks were expected to be available in restaurants and hotels, and it was common to find dandies in top hat and tails, accompanied by a crutch-handled walking stick, chewing on a toothpick in front of the most fashionable establishments. Groups of such gentlemen, especially when they walked several abreast down a city street, came to be referred to as ‘crutch and toothpick brigades.’ It was not long before young ladies took up the habit, causing no end of commentary in newspapers and magazines. Like fads generally, such practices were abandoned by the better classes as they filtered down to the poorer ones.”
The Toothpick is a book in the tradition of my previous book The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. I take as my principal subject an everyday object that by its commonness and familiarity is virtually invisible to its users and to society generally. The very ubiquity of something like a toothpick or a pencil means that it needs no exposition to introduce it to the reader, and so the book can focus immediately on the wider meanings and lessons implicit in the object and its history.
On one level, the wooden toothpick of Forster’s time was a totally regionally produced product. It was manufactured on machines invented and built in the Boston area out of wood that was harvested in the neighboring state of Maine. Frugal New Englanders did not at first beat a path to Charles Forster’s door, and so this pioneer toothpick manufacturer had to make them desire his product. Without his marketing genius, the wooden toothpick might have gone the way of so many forgotten possibilities buried with long-expired patents. In time, Forster moved his toothpick machinery to Maine, where the preferred wood (white birch) grew in abundance, and thereafter his factories were making not only toothpicks but also the machinery to make them in small Maine towns with little other industry.
No matter how local their origins, however, wooden toothpicks from Maine came to influence social behavior throughout the world. Like many a new product, at first they were bought and used (ostentatiously) by people of privilege. By the 1880s, wooden toothpicks were expected to be available in restaurants and hotels, and it was common to find dandies in top hat and tails, accompanied by a crutch-handled walking stick, chewing on a toothpick in front of the most fashionable establishments. Groups of such gentlemen, especially when they walked several abreast down a city street, came to be referred to as “crutch and toothpick brigades.” It was not long before young ladies took up the habit, causing no end of commentary in newspapers and magazines. Like fads generally, such practices were abandoned by the better classes as they filtered down to the poorer ones. In the early twentieth century, it was expected that books on etiquette address the toothpick matter.
The Toothpick moves naturally back and forth between the technological challenge of mass producing wooden toothpicks effectively and efficiently—and at a profit—and the social and cultural implications of their availability and affordability. The importance of a single visionary entrepreneur, in this case Charles Forster, who had a foot in both business and society, is central to the story. Thus, the book also explores the nature of the man and his inability to let go of the empire he built. The implications of Forster’s unusual last will and testament, in which he tried to direct the business from the grave, thus get several chapters in the book. For decades after he died, the toothpick business he founded and developed into a world-class enterprise was known legally and commercially as the Estate of Charles Forster.
As small and simple as the wooden toothpick might be, its many-faceted story shows once again that worlds can be contained in a grain of sand. It was my confidence in Blake’s observation that gave me the confidence that there was a book in a pick. I spend summers in Maine, and in the late 1990s I became increasingly curious about the repeated reports in local newspapers of the closings of toothpick factories in the western part of the state. Since this phenomenon coincided with increasing talk about the closing of factories of all kinds across America, and the surge of products made and imported from abroad, I became attracted to the story of the toothpick in Maine as a microcosm for what seemed to be happening to everything everywhere.
Not only were American-made products becoming increasingly scarce, but the foreign-made ones that were available seemed to be becoming increasingly poorer in quality. There is no comparison between a wooden toothpick made in China today and one made in Maine a century ago. A box of the Chinese product is full of broken pieces, splinters, and dust—and those toothpicks that are whole are rough, split, discolored, and poorly pointed. A century ago, a box of Forster double-pointed toothpicks was a model of quality control. It contained no broken pieces and no splinters and no dust—and each toothpick was as cleanly and smoothly and gracefully formed as a miniature Brancusi sculpture.
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.
“Whether simple or complex, an object and its industry face fundamentally the same issues relating to mechanization, raw materials, quality control, marketing, new product development, supply and demand, competition, and every other aspect of making products and doing business. The simpler the product, the simpler it is to articulate lessons. That is not to say that the lessons themselves are simple.”
Businesses, like the humans who conceive and develop them, have life cycles. The story of the wooden toothpick industry, especially as established by Charles Forster and continued for a century after his death, is a prototypical case study of a business beginning, growing, maturing, and declining. In the case of the toothpick industry, its story mirrors that of so many contemporary businesses faced with issues of foreign manufacture and global competition.
The value of a case study of a simple manufactured object is that its very simplicity makes the lessons that can be drawn from it more simply and readily demonstrated. The more complex a product or industry, the more facets of the story there are to confuse and confound. Yet whether simple or complex, an object and its industry face fundamentally the same issues relating to mechanization, raw materials, quality control, marketing, new product development, supply and demand, competition, and every other aspect of making products and doing business. The simpler the product, the simpler it is to articulate lessons. That is not to say that the lessons themselves are simple, for they are as relevant to automobile manufacturing as they are to toothpicks.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. Besides the two books featured in his Rorotoko interviews, The Essential Engineer and The Toothpick, he has also authored thirteen others””including To Engineer Is Human, Design Paradigms, Engineers of Dreams, Invention by Design, The Evolution of Useful Things, Small Things Considered, and Success through Failure. Henry Petroski is a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland, and an Elected Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.