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.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

'Jingle Bells' Was Originally Written as a Thanksgiving Song

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash
Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

Thanksgiving has got nothing on Christmas when it comes to songs that are specific to the holiday. Beyond Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song” and ... "The Thanksgiving Song" remix, there aren't a ton of songs you associate with Turkey Day. Unless you count "Jingle Bells."

Back in 1850 or 1851, James Lord Pierpont was perhaps enjoying a little holiday cheer at the Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, when Medford’s famous sleigh races to neighboring Malden Square inspired him to write a tune. The story goes that Pierpont picked out the song on the piano belonging to the owner of the boarding house attached to the tavern because he wanted something to play for Thanksgiving at his Sunday school class in Boston. The resulting song wasn’t just a hit with the kids; adults loved it so much that the lyrics to “One Horse Open Sleigh” were altered slightly and used for Christmas. The song was published in 1857, when Pierpont was working at a Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia.

Another bit of trivia for you: Mr. Pierpont was the uncle of banker John Pierpont Morgan, better known as J.P. Morgan. Despite this, and despite the fact that his famous holiday composition should have made him a millionaire, Pierpont struggled to make ends meet. Even after his son renewed the copyright on "Jingle Bells" in 1880, 13 years before his father’s death, it was never enforced enough to produce any real income.

Though lyrics about turkey and the Pilgrims aren’t as abundant as tunes for certain other holidays, they’re out there. Here are a couple:

“Over the River and Through the Wood”

They might as well crown Medford, Massachusetts, the Thanksgiving Capital of the United States, because the song “Over the River and Through the Woods” was born there, too. Lydia Maria Child wrote the poem “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day” about a trip to her grandfather’s house, which, yes, really does sit near the Mystic River in Medford, Massachusetts. It’s still there today, owned by Tufts University and used as a home for Tufts dignitaries. The poem was later set to music and became the classic we know today.

"Alice’s Restaurant Massacre"

It doesn’t have much to do with Thanksgiving, except that the real-life events that inspired the song took place on Thanksgiving. After dumping some litter illegally on Turkey Day in 1967, Arlo Guthrie was arrested. When he later went to the induction center to find out about his draft status, Guthrie realized that he had been declared ineligible for the draft due to his lack of moral conduct. The song, which is 18+ minutes long, became a huge hit amongst war and draft protesters.

This story has been updated for 2020.