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Horse Hair? The Strange History of Dental Floss

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Humans have used tools since before the birth of modern, written history. From fire to arrowheads, we’ve always looked for ways to improve our lives and advance ourselves. Did you know that this ingenuity extends into our oral health care? Before modern toothbrushes were invented, ancient humans would use “chewsticks” to clean their teeth. But what about dental floss? Have we always flossed our teeth? Below is a brief history of dental floss!

Ancient Toothpicks

Along with chewsticks, anthropologists have discovered ancient remains of small, sharpened sticks believed to be used for interdental cleaning (between the teeth). In fact, some chewsticks had sharpened points on one end, making it a double sided oral health tool! These early toothpicks set the precedent for later devices used for interdental cleaning.

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Ancient remains have been found with grooves worn in between their teeth, suggesting the regular use of floss and toothpicks. It’s widely accepted that horse hair was used as the first type of dental floss. Horse’s hair was also used as bristles in early toothbrushes!

Silk Dental Floss Introduced

The earliest iteration of modern dental floss was introduced in 1815, by a New Orleans dentist named Dr. Levi Spear Parmly. Dr. Parmly encouraged his patients to floss with a waxed silken thread after each visit. Waxed silken thread was readily available to consumers as tailoring thread. In 1819, Dr. Parmly wrote a dental book called “A Practical Guide to the Management of Teeth,” which encouraged people to brush twice per day, and floss once every day.

Produced and Patented

In 1882, unwaxed silk floss was mass produced by the Codman and Shurtleff Company to be used expressly as dental floss. In 1898, Johnson & Johnson patented dental floss, and began producing different types of waxed and unwaxed dental floss. Johnson & Johnson’s patent was filed for the same silk material used by doctors to apply stitches.

War Costs Influence Ingenuity

During the height of World War II, the price for silk skyrocketed. As the price of silk soared, dental silken dental floss became too expensive to produce and sell, so silk was replaced with nylon. The idea to replace silk came from a dentist by the name of Dr. Charles Bass, often referred to as the “father of preventative dentistry.” Dr. Bass earned this name because of his insistence upon brushing twice per day, and flossing once every day – advice that he adopted from Dr. Levi Parmly.

Modern Dental Floss for all Teeth

Today, dental floss is available in a variety of sizes, materials and flavors. You can buy dental tape to use on young gums, or even porous floss or floss made from Gore Tex rubber. Floss has come a long way since the silken thread versions of the 19th century. Now, there are versions of floss available for mouths of all shapes and sizes.

Listen to the Father of Preventative Dentistry

As Dr’s Parmly and Bass suggested long ago, it’s important that you brush twice per day, and floss once per day to get the healthiest smile possible. If you need help guiding your child into a healthy flossing routine, then visit our office! Our team of pediatric dentists is here to help your child get the healthiest teeth possible, and build them a shining smile in a comfortable environment. Visit us today, and make our dental practice your child’s dental home!


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