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The toothbrush is a modern-day necessity that helps maintain a high level of personal hygiene and other health benefits. Interested to find out where it all began? Who invented the first toothbrush to give you the sparkling smile you proudly wear today?
In 1487, at the age of 17, Zhu Youcheng succeeded his father to the throne of China, and reigned as Emperor until his death in 1505. He was the ninth Emperor of the Ming Dynasty and is known as the Hongzhi Emperor, meaning “Good Government”.
Believe it or not, it was Hongzhi who patented the first toothbrush in 1498.The first toothbrush was designed with hogback bristles set into bamboo sticks.. However, there are reports of similar toothbrush designs dating back as far as 1223. During the age of the Tang Dynasty, Japanese Zen Master Dogen Kigen recorded in his journals that he witnessed Chinese monks cleaning their teeth with horse-tail brushes attached to impromptu bone handles.
However, historical facts state that the horse-tail brushes were not stiff enough to provide thorough cleaning, and it was Hongzhi who “perfected” the design.
Back then, Oral hygiene was significantly different, if not to say virtually non-existent throughout history. Folks did not have the resources or the cultural heritage that would instill regular teeth cleaning as a necessity.
By the time toothbrushes made their way to Europe, popular methods were used to clean one’s teeth. Some used a chew stick that entailed people chewing on a stick until it frayed. Once frayed the natural properties of the stick would clean the teeth and gums.
While the chew stick was popular in ancient Egypt and Muslim cultures throughout the Middle East, others would used rags dipped in Sulphur oil or a saline solution to wipe the teeth clean. A popular teeth cleaning and whitening method to this very day is the method of rubbing baking soda directly onto teeth without the use of rags. This is however, a risky method that could harm your teeth and gums.
The toothbrush did not manage to catch on until the late 18th century, when an Englishman named William Addis came to the conclusion that the ineffective horse-hair bristles should be replaced with hog bristles. He started importing hog bristles from Northern China and Siberia and made great success selling high-quality toothbrushes.
More than half a century later, Meyer Rhein patented the first three-row toothbrush featuring serrated bristles and tufts. It wasn’t until WWI that celluloid plastic toothbrush handles appeared, since bone resources were highly needed for the war effort.
In 1938, nylon was produced and so came the nylon bristle brushes. Soon after that, the first ever electric toothbrush was invented in 1939. However, it would take another 22 years of trial and error for the first successful electric toothbrush to hit the market, redefining history and setting the stage for the popularization of modern electric toothbrushes.
History is made with a spark of an idea, and apparently, a hog. Contrary to popular belief, the toothbrush is not a modern-day invention, rather it is a contemporary reiteration of 15th century ingenuity that remains the basis of all oral care today. The world owes much to the young Chinese Emperor, Zhu Youcheng, and so we celebrate his entrepreneurial spirit and give our thanks, 519 years later.