10 Tooth-Cleaning Devices & Products of Yesteryear

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Take a closer look at the products and devices folks have used throughout the centuries to fight plaque, tartar, oral fungi, and other miscellaneous cavity creeps.

1. Miswak Cleaning Stick

4 out of 5 dentists recommend sugarless gum to patients who chew gum, you say? Big deal! The miswak was recommended by Mohammad himself. In existence for thousands of years and still used to this day, the miswak comes from the twigs of the Salvadora persica (a.k.a. the Arak or Peelu tree). The fibrous stems aren’t just ideal for removing detritus, either—they're also a natural source of fluoride. A 2003 study on miswak vs. toothbrush use concludes that (when users are given proper instruction), chewing sticks are "more effective than toothbrushing for reducing plaque and gingivitis."

2. Early Toothbrushes

Thanks to international trade, by the late 1700s Europeans were consuming greater quantities of sugar than ever before, and tooth decay was consequently on the upswing. The common tooth cleaning practice at the time—rubbing a rag with soot and salt on the teeth—wasn’t doing the trick, apparently. Toothbrushes existed but were considered exotic, so they weren’t widely available. In stepped businessman William Addis, who reckoned the personal brush he used might have mass appeal and rolled the dice on manufacturing them. It was a good gamble: his brushes were an instant smash. Before long it was unfashionable not to use one—and fancy, bone-handled models of the sort shown here began to appear in droves.

3. Bejewelled Toothpicks

Back in the 1800s, it wouldn’t have been unusual to see the cream of fashionable society whipping out these silver or gold plated picks after a fine supper and going full tilt at their incisors. The trend persisted through the 1950s, and it wasn't unusual to find these sterling picks monogrammed or branded with the family crest. Takeaway: don’t be fooled by those boxes of sticks that say “Fancy Toothpicks.”

4. Dental File

From the Middle Ages through the early 1800s, barbers often doubled as dental surgeons. Because—then as now—pearly whites were considered desirable, dental surgeons were often engaged not only to perform extractions, but to whiten teeth. Their technique? Filing holes between the patient’s teeth, then coating their choppers with corrosive nitric acid. And sure enough, this process whitened people’s teeth. Unfortunately it also dissolved the enamel and eventually led to decay and worse.

5. Tongue Scrapers

Tongue cleaning has been practiced since ancient times in India and Russia. And those folks knew what they were about, since decaying bacteria and fungi on the tongue are related to many common oral care and general health problems (not to mention halitosis). Ivory and silver scrapers are just a few of the models used by the hygienically scrupulous in the 1800s, but these days you can (and should) pick up a plastic one at the nearest pharmacy.

6. Early Dental Floss

Even though folks had been using strings and strands of all sorts to dig gunk from between their teeth for centuries, the official invention of floss is generally credited to New Orleans dentist Levi Spear Parmly, who introduced his silk version in 1815. 73 years later, Johnson & Johnson received the first patent for dental floss, and the time-honored tradition of dental hygienists scolding their patients for not flossing often enough was born.

7. Rubber Disk Toothbrush

Here’s a 1931 design that never caught on, despite its very scientific assertion that “the rubber itself produce[d] a polish when used with a dentrifice [i.e., toothpaste or tooth powder]”. Perhaps the problem lay in the shape, or maybe the rubber toothbrush was just too weird compared to the brushes we'd all grown accustomed to by the '30s. At any rate, this was a huge flop.

8. Long-Handled Tongue Brush

Described as having “an unusually long handle, curved to fit the mouth," this Depression-era brush allowed its user to “reach any part of the tongue which may need cleaning,” thus saving exhausted tongue-brushers from the laborious task of raising their arms a few more inches.

9. Hands-Free Motorized Toothbrush

Wowza! This motor-propelled toothbrush allowed its busy owner to multitask, taking care of his choppers by means of a “vibrating arm," and thus leaving him free to shave, trim his nails or think really hard about whether shaving while a vibrating arm is scrubbing at his teeth is really a good idea. The design appeared and disappeared in 1937.

10. Bourbon & Scotch Flavored Toothpaste

Invented in 1954 by Don Poynter—the same man who brought us crossword-puzzle toilet tissue, by the way—these novelty pastes contained real alcohol. Thanks to a nice spread in Life magazine, they became a huge (but short-lived) seller.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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The Unkindest Cut: A History of the Bowl Cut

Jim Carrey, one hideous bowl cut, and Jeff Daniels star in Dumb and Dumber (1994).
Jim Carrey, one hideous bowl cut, and Jeff Daniels star in Dumb and Dumber (1994).
Warner Home Video

Moses Horwitz dreaded going to school. It was 1903, and the 6-year-old Brooklynite found himself at the mercy of cruel children who would tease him ruthlessly. Their taunting was directed at his hair, long and finger-curled by his mother before class. It was a style deemed more appropriate for girls of the era, and the boys made sure Moses knew it. Even the girls thought it strange. He was heckled before, during, and after school.

This went on for years. One day, at age 11, Moses decided to do something about it.

Over at a friend’s house, he impulsively grabbed a pair of scissors, closed his eyes, and began trimming his hair in a blind circle. When he opened them, his friends were laughing. Moses had crafted a bowl cut—a straight line around his entire head. It was not exactly flattering, but it reduced the number of bloody noses he had to endure.

The cut would eventually prove useful for Moses, who later took on the stage name Moe Howard and formed The Three Stooges comedy team—all while maintaining that trademark hairstyle.

Moe Howard (L) was famous for his bowl cut.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The origins of the bowl cut extend far beyond Moe Howard. The style was common among European men in the 12th through 15th centuries as well as Russian serfs in the 18th century. The appeal was simple: It was a style that could be achieved with no skill, no brushing, and at virtually no cost. It also straddled the line between the longer styles that went in and out of vogue in the Middle Ages and the shorter cuts favored by soldiers and religious leaders. Men of greater means often accessorized the cut with elaborate hats.

While the style persisted, it’s not clear when it adopted the names bowl cut or soup bowl cut, or whether anyone actually used a bowl as a guide. But by the time the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s and '30s, an economical way of trimming hair at home became a popular choice for households trying to conserve funds. Sitting a child in a chair and snipping in a circle was something virtually anyone could do.

The bowl cut, it seemed, prospered wherever haircuts were prohibitively expensive. In 1951, Vancouver residents balked at barbers raising the price for a cut to 85 cents by buying trimmers and electric clippers to shape bowl cuts at home.

The bowl cut experienced another surge in the 1960s, though this time it owed more to fashion than the economy. When the original members of the Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best, and Stu Sutcliffe—went on tour in Hamburg, Germany, in 1960, they befriended a group of art students including Astrid Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer. Kirchherr and Sutcliffe fell in love. When she agreed to give Sutcliffe a haircut, she emulated the bowl style popular among art students at the time. Harrison requested the same thing. Later, when Lennon and McCartney visited Vollmer in Paris, they got similar cuts.

By the time the Beatles arrived stateside in 1964, the group—now minus Sutcliffe and Best, but having added Ringo Starr—was sporting what TIME magazine dubbed the “mushroom” haircut. The band’s fanatical followers emulated the style.

The Beatles got their look while touring in Hamburg, Germany.Keystone/Getty Images

Though the group's hairstyles would later mirror the long hair of the late 1960s and 1970s, the bowl cut had at least earned some level of respectability. It was a common feature of child stars in the 1970s, including Adam Rich of Eight is Enough fame, and later got a featured spot when actor Jake Lloyd grabbed the look while playing young Anakin Skywalker in 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But adults adopting the style was often shorthand for imbecility or mental disturbances. Jim Carrey sported a bowl cut in 1994’s Dumb and Dumber. So did Javier Bardem, as philosophical hitman Anton Chigurh, in 2007’s No Country for Old Men.

More recently, the bowl cut has taken on some sinister connotations. The style has been used in memes advocating far-right and white supremacist beliefs after Dylann Roof was seen with the cut following his 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League added the bowl cut to its list of hate symbols. It's a rather ignoble fate for what was once simply a silly haircut, one which may never again have the respectability and dignity afforded to it by Moe Howard.