Digging Into the History of the Humble Toothpick In The Toothpick, author Henry Petroski looks at the odd and sometimes secretive history of the three-inch stick of wood. Picking your teeth, he finds, is among mankind's oldest bad habits.

Digging Into the History of the Humble Toothpick

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Okay. So you're in a meeting, or maybe it's a first date and you passed by a mirror, check yourself out. And you discover a poppy seed lodged, smacked between your front teeth. Okay, maybe it's a bit of parsley. Whatever it is, you do anything at that moment for a simple toothpick.

This little, three-inch stick of wood has saved millions from countless embarrassments. Not to mention decorating the martinis of America's most fashionable. And now, there is a book about it.

Historian and engineer Henry Petroski is the author and he joins me here in the studio.

How are you, Mr. Petroski?

Mr. HENRY PETROSKI (Engineer; Author, "The Toothpick: Technology and Culture"): Fine.

SEABROOK: Your book is called "The Toothpick: Technology and Culture." It is 420 pages long with a ton of footnotes about the toothpick?

Prof. PETROSKI: Well, I think you could write a book that long or longer with that many or more footnotes about anything. I'm a firm believer that no matter how small an object is, you can find interesting things out about it and its history.

SEABROOK: Okay. So tell me how the standard average wooden toothpick that we all know and love, where did that start out?

Prof. PETROSKI: Well, there've always been wooden toothpicks. I mean, obviously people can pick up a twig and break off a little splinter and use it as a toothpick.


Prof. PETROSKI: But deliberately manufactured ones date from roughly the Middle Ages when in Portugal, they began to make them. Now, of course, Brazil was connected to Portugal so these toothpicks found their way into Brazil. And in the middle of the 19th century, a Bostonian named Charles Forster was working in Brazil. And he noticed that the people that use these toothpicks had very clean, white teeth. And he thought, boy, this is great because this is before the age of the modern toothbrush, of course.


Prof. PETROSKI: So he got the idea that he was going to mass produce these toothpicks up in New England. Unfortunately, he was not much of an inventor himself. So what he did is he found an inventor who invented machines that did similar things - in fact made what were called shoe pegs. Shoe pegs were used in the middle of the 19th century to fasten the tops to the bottoms of shoes.


Prof. PETROSKI: They'll…

SEABROOK: Short little pegs.

Prof. PETROSKI: Short little pegs, exactly. So the trick was to make these things in vast quantities and make them by machine. So knowing how to do that, well, you can imagine a toothpick is just a longer peg sharpened at both ends instead of just one.

SEABROOK: I can imagine people in New England weren't used to picking their teeth with little pieces of wood.

Prof. PETROSKI: And that's part of the story - is that once he did get production going, he couldn't sell the darn things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PETROSKI: So he reverted to some rather devious practices, you might say, by modern marketing ethics.

SEABROOK: What did he do?

Prof. PETROSKI: He hired some students from Harvard, for example, to eat at local restaurants and after eating, demands some of those new wooden toothpicks that are so great, we hear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PETROSKI: The manager of the restaurant had to admit, well, I haven't seen them. I don't know them. By coincidence, of course, the next day, Charles Forster would show up with his supply of toothpicks, and he had an easy sell to the restaurants.

SEABROOK: Oh, it's early viral marketing.

Prof. PETROSKI: Yeah.

SEABROOK: Now, a large part of your book is about the technology that came about for mass producing these toothpicks.

Prof. PETROSKI: That's right. The subtitle of the book is "Technology and Cultures." And it's - the idea of being able to get the right wood behaving in the right way and the right machine is no trivial matter. There are classically two basic types of toothpicks that were manufactured in America.


Prof. PETROSKI: So called flat and the round.

SEABROOK: Oh, yeah. And you can still buy both flat and round toothpicks.

Prof. PETROSKI: That's right. You can still. And in fact, you can buy a third kind now called square center, round - and there's something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PETROSKI: It's a real hybrid and it's - I think it's a total flop because not only is the name awkward but the toothpick itself looks awkward. It just doesn't have the grace. If you can find a box of 100-year-old round toothpicks…


Prof. PETROSKI: And if you can take one out and look at it, the shape is just so organic. It's really - it's almost like a piece of sculpture.

SEABROOK: I was interested to learn that those toothpicks that have a little rings that are carved out at one end - that those got a sharp end and then a blunt end that the rings are carved out.

Prof. PETROSKI: Right.

SEABROOK: That isn't just for decoration.

Prof. PETROSKI: No, that's right. Those are usually referred to as Japanese toothpicks. The rings or the grooves encircling the top of a Japanese toothpick make it easy - they do serve as a decoration, of course. But they also make it easy to break that end off. And if that end is broken off, that signals that the toothpick has been used. It's a very thoughtful little design.

SEABROOK: Mr. Petroski, you've written many books about design. You've explored bridges, the pencil, telephone keypad and, now, the toothpick. What do you look for in a subject when you're going to write a book?

Prof. PETROSKI: Well, I'm interested in simple subjects - simple objects -because I think you can illustrate a lot of principles of design without having to spend, you know, the first half of the book explaining what this thing is you're trying to talk about.

I called the toothpick the simplest thing. In many ways, I think it is. It's got a single part. It's made of a single material. Its name suggests a single purpose - picking the teeth. But, of course, we know that they're used for a lot of other things. And I can't think of a simpler thing. And I wait to be challenged on that when people start reading the book.

SEABROOK: Mr. Petroski, have all simple things been invented already?

Prof. PETROSKI: Oh, that's an excellent question. Chances are, a lot of them have, if they're made out of simple materials like wood. But one of the simple objects I like to think of is this little simple object. It's known as a pizza saver. You know, if you get a pizza delivered on a box, the heat of the pizza softens the roof of the box and bouncing…

SEABROOK: The cardboard.

Prof. PETROSKI: What happens? Yeah, the cardboard. And what happens is the pizza cheese sticks to the top of the box. Right?

SEABROOK: It's the little plastic, little…

Prof. PETROSKI: So those little plastic things called pizza savers.

SEABROOK: Those tripod things.

Prof. PETROSKI: Tripods, exactly. Those are very simple devices and they were invented for a very specific purpose. But they probably would not have been invented before the pizza box and the pizza, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PETROSKI: So some inventions - some simple inventions are going to have to wait until their time.

SEABROOK: Henry Petroski is a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University. His latest book is "The Toothpick: Technology and Culture."

Thanks so much for being here.

Prof. PETROSKI: Well, thank you. It's been fun.

SEABROOK: You can read an excerpt about why picking your teeth is mankind's oldest bad habit at npr.org/books.

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