Open wide

26th May 2000 at 01:00
John Stringer looks into the history of tooth care and dental hygiene. Photography Colin Chrisford

Have you bought a toothbrush recently? Most of the population replaces its brushes during the summer, in case the chambermaid on the Costa del Sol objects to the well-chewed object they've been using all year. As a result, toothbrush adverts run mostly in the summer months.

Some parents still underestimate the importance of their family practising good dental care, despite the fact dental hygiene has been around since Pliny the Elder. In his natural history writings in 77AD, he wrote about a tooth powder made of egg shells, pumice, myrrh and the ashes of ox hooves.

Modern toothpastes are made from mild abrasives in a cellulose base, with peppermint added for flavouring. The occupants of The 1900 House, televised on Channel 4, experienced the delights of bicarbonate of soda and a bristle brush, but at least they were spared polishing with diatoms or carcinogenic mica. The Victorians invented dentifrice - a small tablet of tooth powder - to fight decay of a tooth or bone. The incidence of this had risen from around 4 per cent of the population before 1200, to around 12 per cent in Shakespeare's time, and more than 80 per cent in 1800.

This was largely because of the increased consumption of sugar.

Early toothpastes such as Kolynos Dental Cream ("cleans in-between the teeth - just put half an inch on a dry brush") were supplemented with pyorrhoea paste. The Macleans paste treated inflamed gums and cost just one shilling and sixpence a tube.

However, children have always needed encouragement to use these innovations. Even Eugol toothpaste, which "comes out flat, does not roll off the brush", did not catch their imagination. As a result, toothpaste makers developed educational and entertaining resources for the young. The Odol Activity Book for Boys and Girls (published in 1930 and costing sixpence) featured the Odol army in full uniform and armed with toothbrushes, advancing on the "den of decay". Uncle Odol was based in Norwich, where he provided free patterns of the Odol fancy-dress costume for girls. All they had to do was send in their age and height. Boys could make the Odol cardboard aeroplane.

It was the Gibbs company, however, which introduced the first range of tooth-care resources that were aimed at capturing children's vivid imaginations. "Gibbs Dentifrice defends your ivory castles", its advertisements declared, promising that the Gibbs fairies would "hide away inside the rose-pink dentifrice cake", and defend against Giant Decay and his imps.

About 1930, Ivory Castle Rhyme and Painting Books were introduced to teach children about the eruption of new teeth, and reminded parents that the popular size of Gibbs dentifrice cost seven pence and ha'penny.

The Ivory Castle Game was designed to hang in the bathroom or be played using dice and counters. The Gibbs fairies helped children on their way to health and happiness, whereas the imps would hinder them and lead them into Caries Wood where there was "danger from imps if you linger on".

The game did not have an overt dental health message and there was no attempt to sell toothpaste. Instead, it was an early case of raising brand awareness.

In 1976, Dr Linda Kruger, an "eminent Austrian dental specialist", endorsed Kolynos toothpaste and first mentioned flossing as an aid to dental hygiene. By May 1993 we had National Smile Week, sponsored by Colgate, which branded itself as "the World's biggest smile". Colgate offered a wide rangeof contemporary tooth-care products, including Total, Great Regular Flavour, Blue Minty Gel, Tartar Control Paste, 0-6 for Babies, and "unique Diamond Head toothbrushes".

Dental hygiene is still high on the health agenda. The advent of fluoride reduced the incidence of cavities, but brushing remains essential. Firms still sell products for more effective cleaning and to teach children about tooth care.

Dental hygiene The number of children with dental decay is declining in the UK, but teaching about dental hygiene is still important.

The new national curriculum includes personal, social and health education, plus citizenship guidelines for both primary key stages. At key stage 1, children should learn about improving health and maintaining personal hygiene. At KS2 they should learn about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and how simple, safe routines can reduce the spread of bacteria.

Dental hygiene is a perfect vehicle for these objectives as it involves a routine that can help avoid pain and disfigurement. Regular brushing has long been known to reduce the incidence of dental caries and gum disease. Even fluoride does not, however, negate the importance of brushing to remove plaque. Flossing reduces plaque between the teeth and there are small brushes to complete the job. Chemical weapons include toothbrushes and mouthwashes.

A website for teachers and children is Thanks to Stephen Lowther, Assistant Cataloguer at the Wellcome Library for History and Understanding of Medicine.


The science curriculum mentions dental hygiene in the juniors, while general health care is emphasised in the infants.

Teeth and the curriculum At KS1, children should be learning in science about the similarities and differences between themselves and other children, and comparing the external parts of their bodies. This could involve counting teeth, talking or writing about visits to the dentist and personal experiences of growing and losing teeth. This not only provides them with the opportunity to give spoken or written accounts of what happened to them, but allows them to compare their adventures.

In history, they should identify the differences between ways of life at different times and investigate the past from a range of information sources.

At KS2, children should be learning in science about the functions of and care for teeth, and about the importance of an adequate and varied diet for health. They can look at the comparative costs of dental care products. From first-hand experience they can speak, listen, discuss and write about the loss of baby teeth, the growth of adult teeth and about experiences at the dentist. They can express views on dental hygiene, and on advertising and persuasion. They should learn about past beliefs, attitudes and experiences of men, women and children.


* Collect the wrappings from tooth-care products. Investigate the prices, package size and claims. Choose the best buys.

* Ask relatives about their memories of tooth care. Who remembers tooth powder and bristle brushes, or cleaning their teeth with salt or bicarbonate of soda? Who remembers chlorophyll toothpaste or that first striped toothpaste?

* Emphasise the importance of dental hygiene. Plaque is invisible - it contains the bacteria that cause decay and will coat your teeth even if you eat nothing and drink only water. The bacteria convert sugars - including those from fruit - to harmful acids. This causes decay and cavities.

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