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William Addis, and the story of the modern toothbrush.

For a man who had a Wedgwood plaque issued in 1980 commemorating his “invention” of the first tooth brush two centuries earlier, the information about William Addis seems a bit thin on the ground. Everyone is agreed that he was born in 1734, and that he became a rag trader (collecting rags and then pulping them to make high quality paper, which was then sold on to bookmakers) but I cannot see details of his exact date of birth, or his address. Suffice to say he was from the East End of London.

To give him credit for inventing the toothbrush is perhaps a little too strong a statement: after all the word ‘toothbrush’ had been around for some time (it first appeared in English in 1690 when Anthony Wood describes in his autobiography buying such an implement from a Mr J Barret (mmm, can’t wait to get my hands on that autobiography – sounds fascinating….). The point is: tooth brushes had been around for centuries. The Chinese made them from bamboo, with hog’s bristles. But in the Western world these had never caught on and people either used chewing sticks (in effect, twigs which had been chewed to give a splayed end which could be rubbed against the tooth) or else rags. Either way, these were used to apply a gentle abrasive such as coal dust, salt, brick dust etc. Tasty!

The story goes that in 1780 our rag-maker William Addis was picked up in Spitalfields and thrown into Newgate prison for causing a riot. People from the East End did that sort of thing apparently. Anyway, he was bored, and a bit fed up of rubbing his teeth with an old rag and a spot of brick dust when he thought he would come up with a better solution: modern hygiene was just around the corner. We are led to believe that he saved a piece of bone found in his prison meal, drilled half a dozen small holes in one end, and, inspired at seeing a broom standing in the corner of his cell, decided to thread bristles though the holes (“Guard, be so good as to go and fetch me the bristles from a Siberian boar, there’s a good chap”). The bristles were then glued or wired into place.

Early brushes, courtesy of the Addis website.

Now I am sure that Addis did all this, but not so convinced that he did it while in prison. For a start, hand drills are hard to come by in a prison cell, as is glue or metal wire for fixing the afore-mentioned boar bristles. Much more likely: Addis had a eureka moment and as soon as he got out of jail he experimented with materials until he ended up with a serviceable brush, in all probability using horse hair.

Later experiments involved badger hair, but the most efficacious was apparently hair from the Siberian boar or any other animal from the frozen North with a suitable strong stubble.

Imbued with a zeal to spread the word about oral hygiene (and to make a buck) Addis then started making the brushes commercially from his premises in Whitechapel in East London. He formed a company in 1780 and the brushes were an immediate success. It is said that initially he supplied them through his trade contacts in the book industry (“Buy my book and get a free toothbrush”). Whatever, the sales pitch worked and word soon got around that here was something of a ‘must have’ product. Other manufacturers quickly joined the band-wagon, cashing in on the problems of dental decay caused by the huge increase in the consumption of sugar.

This is borne out by my ancestor’s own records – I have some of his shopping lists in which he mentions buying “14 lbs of moist sugar” and blow me, only six weeks later he sent off for another 28 pounds! With a sweet tooth like that no wonder he needed to brush his teeth well ! In fairness, much of it went in making currant wine, but you get the picture….

In 1787 (William Addis would have been 53 by then) Mrs Addis presented him with a son, whom he called William. It was William Mk II who was later to succeed his father in the business, and expand it when it moved to larger premises at Radnor Street, Hoxton, where he employed sixty workers mostly on the making of the bone handles. Quantities of ox and bullock thigh bones would be bought from the butchers, minus the ends (which were sold off to be cut into discs by the button makers). The bones, often a couple of feet long, would be boiled, cleaned and cut up length-wise to make strips which were then cut to length to make the four different sizes: Gents, Ladies, Child’s and Tom Thumb. The handles would then be shaped to create the head, which was then drilled with holes to hold the bristles.

At this stage in the manufacturing process (and apparently there were some 53 separate stages) the blanks would then be sent out for ‘filling’ i.e. securing tight bundles of bristles together, threading them through the drilled holes, and cutting them to the required length.

Rather than have a single large factory (all those nasty overheads!) William Addis followed a system used by many other trades (weaving, laundry etc.) – he farmed out the filling process to women working from their homes in Spitalfields and Whitechapel, and paid them on a piecework basis. In other words the women would be paid according to how many brushes they produced, but would have to supply their own tools and material up front. From the company’s viewpoint it was great – lower overheads and if the goods were not deemed ‘up to the mark’, no payment was made.

Advertisement, from the Addis website.

For the true connoisseur the hair used was badger, but Addis sourced pig, boar and sows bristles from as far away as Russia, Poland, Bulgaria and France.

In 1845 William Addis II moved production to larger premises in Herbert Street. Life carried on profitably and in much the same way for nearly a century, when in 1935 Wallace Hume Carothers of DuPont came up with the a molten polymer called nylon. Another eureka moment for the Addis family, now trading as Wisdom – they did a deal with ICI (the UK licensees of DuPont) and eventually used the polymer to make an entirely synthetic brush, complete with nylon bristles. Wisdom’s own site suggests that wartime rationing, whereby bones were always used in the home to be boiled down to make nutritious soups, stews etc. was the final death knell for the bone handle.

Wisdom toothbrushes can therefore claim to be part of a tradition going back over 225 years, even though the last Addis left the company fifteen years ago.

And what of dental floss? Look to the New Orleans dentist rejoicing by the name of Levi Spear Parmly, who in 1815 recommended to patients that they use strong silk thread between their teeth. The first commercially produced dental floss, using un-waxed silk, was in 1882 while a patent for the product was taken out by Johnson & Johnson in 1898.

And the toothpaste? One of the earliest recipes was from 1780 and involved burnt toast crumbs, Another from that same date calls for a mix to be made using one and a half ounces of dragons blood, the same amount of cinnamon, and an ounce of burnt alum with the mixture being used every other day (presumably too much dragon’s blood was considered to be a bad thing). Other recipes involved ground sea shells, cuttlefish and china, to which was added bicarbonate of soda and borax powder to produce a foaming effect.

Immediately after World War II, I remember toothpaste didn’t come in tubes – it was called dentifrice and came in tins, as a hard cake of powder which had to be worked with a moistened toothbrush. Today our toothpastes contain a myriad of ingredients: quite apart from the 20% to 40% which is plain water! So we have abrasives, fluoride, and detergents. Things called surfactants, bacterial agents, flavorants and re-mineralizers may be included, as well as strontium chloride or potassium to reduce sensitivity. And if you want to minimize the formation of tartar throw in a dollop of Sodium polyphosphate for good measure. Not sure about all that – I think I may just stick to powdered snail shells or a nice bit of brick dust…

7 thoughts on “William Addis, and the story of the modern toothbrush.”

  1. There are earlier recipes in household books for toothpowder, I don’t have a reference in front of me, but one in IIRC around 1690 called for a mix of powdered charcoal, dried sage and salt with actually would have been fairly efficacious. I’m currently researching the dentifrice powders of the Regency for my blog so this post is of particular interest!

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    1. I don’t think that the riot ever merited a name – the unfortunate William, then aged 46, was arrested in Spittalfields and charged with causing a riot – in other words a civil disturbance. Hence his trip to prison.

  4. That makes sence. I need to do recearch for a paper in school. The riot was NOT named. although I wonder what happened to his company over the years…..

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