A Toothsome History


Lauren Roberts

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One hundred and fifteen years ago, on May 22, 1892, Dr. Washington Sheffield, a dentist in New London, Connecticut, was the first to put toothpaste into the modern collapsible toothpaste tube. At the time, tooth cleaning products were sold in porcelain jars into which toothbrushes were repeatedly dipped. This un-hygienic routine lead him to think about using the collapsible metal tubes used for oil paints—originally patented on September 11, 1841, by American artist John Rand—for toothpaste.

That toothpaste was named Dr Sheffield's Creme Dentifrice, and the company he founded to manufacture the tubes commercially—Sheffield Tube Corporation—went on to become Colgate. Today, Americans brush their teeth nearly 200 billion times a year and spend more than 1.6 billion dollars on products to do so.

What has not changed all that much throughout history is the desire to clean our teeth. What has changed—dramatically—is how we do it. In researching this, I have to say that I am very thankful to live at the time I do. You might be too after reading this. How would you like a toothpaste consisting of powdered ashes of ox hooves, myrrh, powdered and burnt eggshells and pumice? The ancient Egyptians did, as long ago as 5000 BC.

According to an article entitled “The ancient Egyptian recipe for toothpaste” by Irene Zoech, the world’s oldest formula was found on a piece of ancient papyrus in a Viennese museum. “In faded black ink made of soot and gum arabic mixed with water,” she writes, “an ancient Egyptian scribe has carefully described what he calls a ‘powder for white and perfect teeth.’” (Perhaps this was the new, improved version?)

This document lists the ingredients as “one drachma of rock salt—a measure equal to one hundredth of an ounce—two drachmas of mint, one drachma of dried iris flower and 20 grains of pepper, all of them crushed and mixed together.” When combined with saliva, this powder became a paste. She terms it pungent.

In China and India, the development of toothpaste arose around circa 300-500 BC. According to Chinese history, Huang-Ti studied the care  of teeth and claimed different types of pain felt in the mouth could be cured by sticking gold and silver needles into different parts of the jaw and gum.

While probably painful, it actually sounds better than the advice offered circa 23-79 AD when ashes  from burnt mice heads, rabbits heads, wolves heads, ox heels and goats  feet were recommended for benefitting the gums or when it was believed that bones picked out of wolves’ excrement and worn prevented toothaches. Perhaps even worse was the mouthwashes, which consisted of white wine or old urine kept specifically for this purpose.

The Greeks improved on the Egyptian recipes by adding abrasives such as crushed bones and oyster shells. These helped clean debris from the teeth, and the Romans made further improvements with additions of powdered charcoal and bark as well as other flavoring agents.

Around 1000 AD, Persians were aware of the dangers of using such abrasives. They used burnt shells of snails and oysters along with gypsum as well as dried animal parts, herbs, honey, incense and powdered flintstone.

Information about dental care and tooth cleaning becomes sketchy at this point in history, but one online source entitled A selection of Dental hygiene and mouthwash products from a variety of medieval and Renaissance sources by Jadwiga Zajaczkowa has fascinating historical recipes. What I especially liked about this site is that she took these sometimes vague instructions, determined ingredients’ amounts and tried them, reporting the results. It is well worth reading the entire site, but here are some of the recipes she found:

On Women's Cosmetics
(11th century): “The woman should wash her mouth after dinner with very good wine. Then she ought to dry [her teeth] very well and wipe [them] with a new white cloth. Finally, let her chew each day fennel or lovage or parsley, which is better to chew because it gives off a good smell and cleans good gums and makes the teeth very white.”

Physica (12th century): “One who wishes to have hard, healthy teeth should take pure,  cold water into his mouth in the morning, when he gets out of bed. He should hold it for a little while in his mouth so that the mucus around his teeth become soft, and so this water might wash his teeth. If he does this often, the mucus around his teeth will not increase, and his teeth will remain healthy. Since the mucus adheres to the teeth during sleep, when the person rises from sleep he should clean them with cold water, which cleans teeth better than warm water. Warm water makes them more fragile.”

Bankes' Herbal (1525): “For the stinking of the mouth and filth of the gums and of the  teeth, wash thy mouth and gums with vinegar that mints have been sodden in; after that, rub them with the powder of mints or with dry mints.” In another recipe he notes that one should “. . . take the timber thereof [rosemary] and burn it to coals  and make powder thereof and put it into a linen cloth and rub thy teeth therewith, and if there be any worms therein, it shall slay them and keep thy teeth from all evils.”

The English Housewife (1615): “Take a saucer of strong vinegar, and two spoonsful of the powder of roche alume, a spoonful of white salt, and a spoonful of honey: seethe all these till it be as thin as water, then put it into a close vial and keep it, and when occasion serves wash your teeth therewith, with a rough cloth, and rub them soundly, but not to bleed.”

In the 18th century, toothpowder or dentifrice became available in England. It came in a ceramic pot as either a powder or paste. Unfortunately, these powders included abrasive substances such as brick dust, crushed china, earthenware and cuttlefish. In 1824, a dentist named Peabody was the first to add soap to toothpaste. Chalk was added in the 1850s. It wasn’t until 1873 that toothpaste became a mass-produced product in a jar. And it was shortly after that, in 1892, that Dr. Sheffield put it in a collapsible tube.

Kolynos Toothpaste began with Newell Sill Jenkins. Born on December 29, 1840, he apprenticed himself to a dentist before moving to Germany to open his own practice in 1866. He treated royal and noble families, and counted author Mark Twain and composer Richard Wagner among his patients and friends. The latter, thankful for an emergency trip Jenkins made to him in 1877, sent him the piano scores for the opera, Der Ring, which had successfully opened the year before. It was inscribed:

I speak not of the tooth of time,
The tooth’s own time is drawing nigh.
Is Jenkins then within this clime?
Time and its tooth I will defy.

It took 18 years, but Jenkins, believing that the “mouth and throat must be regarded as a unit in sanitary treatment,” devised a process for a new toothpaste. Heeding the ethical guidelines of his time, he did not sell it, but instead wrote out prescriptions. However, inconsistent results for his patients let him to work out a formula which he presented at the 1908 meeting of the American Dental Society of Europe in London.

The name “Kolynos” came from the Greek Kolyo nosus, meaning “Disease Preventer.” The toothpaste was first sold on April 13 of that year. A merger, a business change and a factory later,  the American Dental Association endorsed Kolynos, the only toothpaste at the time to be so recognized.

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During radio’s so-called Golden Age (1930-1950), Kolynos sponsored several radio programs. Listeners who tuned in to shows like Mr. Keen and Tracer of Lost Persons heard Kolynos described as a “high polishing tooth paste” and compared its polishing quality to that of a jeweler’s.  
Toward the end of the 1950s, Kolynos toothpaste was accepted for advertising by the American Dental Association. Fluoride toothpaste was also sold at this time, though it generated (and continues to generate) controversy.  When the ADA went with fluoride, it also signaled the end of Kolynos in the U.S. market  It still continues to sell in the Latin and South American countries as a subdivision of Colgate Palmolive.


Pebeco is a now-defunct toothpaste that began life around 1900. It was a paste made from a powder, and was packaged in tin tubes by Beiersdorf of Germany. Within five years, it became its best-selling product, but not for long. By the 1920s, consumer tastes had begun to change from medicinal to minty. And when 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, published by Arthur Kallet and F.J. Schlink of the fledgling Consumers’ Research organization, noted that Pebeco toothpaste contained a poison so strong that “a German army officer committed suicide by eating a tubeful,” the product quickly fell off the market.

During its glory days, though, it did well. At a web site entitled Personal letters home from Letters Home From the War is this excerpt from the letter dated October 11, 1918: I am sending my request for the three-pound Christmas package by this letter. I suppose you have heard about it by this time so it needs no introduction. I thought I would send it to you as there isn't a whole lot of time to get it ready for starting across and you are closer to direct lines of communication than the folks at home. Just put in a couple of tubes of Pebeco toothpaste, some good talcum powder, and a little good chocolate and I will have a good Christmas. If you have time, you can tell the folks that you have the request but I am afraid there won't be much time. One is all we are allowed and that is quite a little considering the fact that shipping facilities are so limited.
One notable and frightening oddity from toothpaste history is that of Doramad Radioactive Toothpaste. Yes, you read that right—radioactive toothpaste. According to Paul W. Frame in “Tales from the Atomic Age,” an article adapted from the book, Alsos by Samuel Goudsmit, Doramad Toothpaste (circa 1940-1945) was an peculiar phenomenon of the race to build the atomic bomb.


Tracking Germany’s atomic research was the responsibility of an Allied intelligence effort code-named Alsos. In the fall of 1944,” Frame writes, “the Alsos team learned that Auer Gesselshaft, a German chemical company involved in securing and processing uranium, had taken over the French company Terres-Rares during Nazi occupation. Ominously, Auer had shipped Terres-Rares’ massive supply of thorium to Germany. That the Germans wanted thorium suggested that their atomic research was further advanced than previously thought.”

But the true reason for the disappearance of the thorium supplies turned out to be simpler: “The Auer Company . . . concluded that there was no better future for their company than in cosmetics and related consumer products! Radium had already been used in toothpaste (Radiogen), why not use thorium instead? Auer had the patent, and with the thorium in hand they were ready to hit the ground running. They even formulated the following potential advertisement: ‘Use toothpaste with thorium! Have sparkling, brilliant teeth—radioactive brilliance!’” The full story can be found here.

Fortunately, knowledge and toothpaste have come a long way from the powdered ashes of ox hooves or the luminosity of radioactivity. Here’s the right way to clean your teeth and keep them for life: Use a soft-bristled brush to avoid brushing away gum tissue. Use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. Brush at least twice a day for a minimum of two minutes each. Floss once a day, preferably before bedtime.

Bookmark specifications: Kolynos
Dimensions: 5 1/2” x 1 1/2”
Material: Cardboard
Manufacturer: Kolynos
Date: Unknown; probably early to mid-20th century
Acquired: eBay

Bookmark specifications: Pebeco
Dimensions: 9” x 1”
Material: Silk
Manufacturer: Pebeco
Date: Early 20th century
Acquired: eBay

Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, 800 bookmarks and approximately 1,000 books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) and Book Publicists of Southern California as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. You can reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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