Toothpick and Technology
The first machine for the manufacturing of toothpicks, was patented on February 20, 1872, by Silas Noble and J.P. Cooley, of Granville, Massachusetts. As odds would have it, on the same date, in the same year, Luther Crowell was given a patent for a paper bag manufacturing machine. He is said to have invented the square bottom brown paper bag and the machinery to produce it. The one thing I have discovered while preparing these pages for Months of Edible Celebrations, is that history does not always agree with history. To find out more about the patents associated with the square bottom paper bag, checkout food check-out day listed in resources.

Charles Forster of Strong, Maine, is believed to be the first American to manufacture toothpicks. His first were handmade, but by 1860, he had to devise machines to keep up with the growing demand. The toothpick making machine allowed blocks of wood to be cut into toothpicks. A complete toothpick machine system would include a veneer lathe, six cutting machines, one drying oven, and one straightening and box filling machine. source

Charles Forster came up with the idea of manufacturing disposable wooden toothpicks while on a trip to South America, where he saw natives using slivers of wood to clean their teeth. Throughout history, toothpicks were made out of numerous materials including ivory, porcupine quill, chicken bones, gold, silver steel and yes, even wood. Legend would have it, that he sent a sample box home to his wife who showed them around. Soon Mr. Foster had orders for more, especially from hotels and restaurants. He set up a factory in Strong, Maine and machinery was developed to peel blocks of wood into long, thin ribbons. An 1/8 block of wood could produce a ribbon 90 feet in length. These ribbons were cut into toothpicks, which were moved by pitchfork into the sun to dry like hay. Then they were sorted and packed by hand. The toothpicks were constructed of only the finest polished white birch. In it's heyday, the toothpick manufacturing plant used about 1,000 cords of birch and poplar. How many toothpicks is that you ask? According to Smithsonian Magazine, Forster created a market for disposable toothpicks by having Harvard students eat at local restaurants, then loudly demand a toothpick after finishing their meals. At one time, the state of Maine manufactured 90% of the countries toothpicks and Forster Manufacturing was the world's largest producer of toothpicks. Unfortunately, "The Toothpick Capital of the World" rolled out their last toothpick on April 29, 2003. I guess they're making toothpicks in Japan:(

"Pick not thy teeth with thy knyfe, but take a stick, or some clean thyng, then doe you not offend" (Rhodes: 15 century philosopher)

Before man devised the axe he may have invented the toothpick! The toothpick has been around longer than our species. In the Old Testament, it is written that "one may take a splinter from the wood lying near him to clean his teeth." The skulls of Neanderthals, as well as Homo sapiens, have shown clear signs of having teeth that were either flossed with blades of grass or picked with rudimentary toothpick tools. Similar markings have been found in the fossilized teeth of both American Indians and Australian Aborigines. source: Smithsonian Magazine

If a tiny piece of food gets lodged between your teeth during a meal, the natural thing to do is to remove it. While such an act is taboo in Western settings, it is tolerated in a Malaysian environment. read on...

In China, a curved pendant, made of cast bronze was worn around the neck and used as a toothpick. In 536 BC, the Chinese mandated a law that required the use of the toothpick because their armies suffered from bad breath. The people of China also used the branch of the willow tree, a spicebush, a cedar, a peach tree, or bamboo as a toothpick. Picking your teeth during meals is quite acceptable in Chinese society. Fine dining Chinese restaurants provide individually packed mint-tipped toothpicks between courses as part of their banquet table settings. It is believed that the flavours of one course should not mingle with the next.

In India twigs from the Neem tree were used as toothpicks. Romans and Greeks were also avid oral hygiene enthusiasts. Pliny the Younger of Rome (61-113 A.D.) proclaimed that using a vulture quill as a toothpick would cause halitosis, but using a porcupine quill was acceptable because it 'made the teeth firm'.

At one time, you could tell a person's status by what they used to pick their teeth. Kings, queens, and lords picked their teeth with designer toothpicks made from gold, silver, or ivory. Often, they were inlaid with precious stones. Twigs and porcupine quills were most often used by the "lower classes." By the 17th century, the toothpick was the latest fad for the educated classes in Europe they were even included in traveling sets together with a knife and spoon. In France, for example, toothpicks were served with desserts, usually poked into fruit to be handy following a meal. After they were used, they could be placed behind the ear for future use. "Chew sticks" became so popular that books on etiquette such as Tanhausers Court Manners often included advice on the proper use and acceptance of the toothpick. Picking your teeth during a meal was an absolute taboo. It could cause a person to be black listed from future social functions and cause a whirl of gossip. Even today, the toothpick hanging out the side of the mouth is found to be quite offensive and picking your teeth in public is still best to avoid.