When Did Americans Begin Brushing Their Teeth?

Mar 12, 2014, by Dr. Becky Coats

19th Century ToothbrushingIt’s something we take for granted every day as part of our normal routine: brushing our teeth. But it actually hasn’t been all that long that Americans had oral hygiene as part of their everyday routine.

The Rise of Dentistry

During the 19th century, oral health in the United States was very poor, probably about as poor as it had been for most of recorded history. Worse in many cases because while previous societies like the Egyptians had restricted high-calorie diets to the wealthiest members, by the 19th century industrialized society, the free market, and American democracy had made sugary and starchy foods readily available to everyone. So although the amount of tooth damage and loss was the same, it was spread more widely across society.

Partly in response to the growing need, and partly in response to a more scientific and orderly approach to healthcare, dentistry became a regulated profession. The first dental school was opened in 1828, with the first program offering a doctor of dental surgery established in 1840. The American Dental Association was founded in 1859.

As dentists were trained and certified throughout the country, they began to realize the importance not only of restorative treatments like metal amalgam fillings (which were controversial when introduced and remained that way until they were replaced by tooth-colored fillings), but also the importance of preventive dentistry. The problem was how to educate people on the importance of toothbrushing.

Bringing Toothbrushing to the Masses

Despite promoting toothbrushing, the efforts would likely have failed were it not for the rise of public education in the US. Along with dentistry, formal education reform was part of the systematic approach to life that developed during the 19th century, but it wasn’t until around 1900 that states began to have compulsory attendance laws that forced kids to go to school until at least the age of 14.

This made schools a perfect place to establish the importance of oral health, and boy was it necessary. At the turn of the century, surveys showed that 90-95% of children had untreated decaying teeth. In 1910, a survey of 447 children in Elmyra, New York showed that only 22 had perfect teeth. The remainder had more than 2000 cavities among them, and 617 teeth and roots that needed to be extracted.

As part of the effort to control this epidemic, dental hygienists were invited to schools to teach kids about brushing their teeth. Schools either gave away toothbrushes or sold them at a very low cost. Kids were encouraged to join “toothbrush clubs” and had toothbrushing drills.

As a result, toothbrushing became popular, and the amount of cavities seen in children dropped dramatically.