Columnist Pagan Kennedy ’84 follows the history of dental floss in an article for The New York Times Magazine’s “Who Made That” page. From Charles Dickens’ engraved toothpick to bubble-gum-flavored floss, “two centuries on, flossing remains the quintessential thing that we forget—and hate—to do,” she writes.
“In the early 1800s, a pioneering dentist, Levi Spear Parmly, urged patients to clean between their teeth with silk thread—a revolutionary technique that could protect the gum line and prevent tooth decay. But ‘people just didn’t get it,’ says Dr. Scott Swank, curator of the National Museum of Dentistry. In an era during which rotting molars were the norm, he says, ‘people expected their teeth to fall out.’
“The Victorians also loved their toothpicks. After dinner, a gentleman would produce a leather box, reach into its velvet-lined interior, withdraw his gold pick and begin grooming. Charles Dickens owned a toothpick inlaid with ivory and engraved with his initials; it retracted into its own handle like a tiny spyglass. Flossing might have been more effective, but how could it compete with the flash of the toothpick? Back then, silk thread came in unwieldy spools and had to be cut into lengths with a knife. Worse, using it required you to put your fingers into your mouth.”
Image: via Pagan Kennedy.
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