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Book - The Toothpick

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As you prod at the turkey stuck in your teeth, take a moment to ponder the technology of your toothpick, says Adam Leith Gollner

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture. Henry Petroski, Knopf. 464 pages.

We’ve always picked our teeth. Scrape marks on early human incisors suggest the use of twigs and grass. Since then we’ve used cactus thorns, spider fangs, vulture quills, dried mosquitoes, raccoon penises and rat thigh bones (‘once valued in social clubs’).

As mundane and flimsy as toothpicks appear, their story is meatier than one might imagine, as Henry Petroski’s 464-page book testifies. Petroski himself admits to having used business cards or bits of folded paper. Best known as the author of the equally monomaniacal 1993 work The Pencil, Petroski seems to merge infatuations. ‘For more general picking I have found that a mechanical pencil, one of which is almost always in my pocket, is very effective,’ he writes. ‘I try to do it in private or at least when no one appears to be looking.’ You sense his enthusiasm for the research when he relates procuring a ‘gracefully’ curved walrus whisker toothpick on eBay. A hedgehog is described as ‘a walking bunch of toothpicks.’

Alongside dishing on organisations such as the toothpick cartel and the American Anti- Toothpick Society, Petroski delves deeply into the engineering behind this one-part machine. He tells of how inventors overcame the structural complexities of manufacturing an implement resilient enough to navigate tight crevices while remaining flexible. Despite everything else we’ve used, Petroski says wood is ‘the perfect material for exploring the oral landscape.’ Mass production entails peeling birch trees, chopping them into logs and placing them on rotators which shave them into long, flat, toothpick thin ribbons that are then cut into pointed slivers and boxed for further enjoyment.

The father of the modern toothpick industry was Boston’s Charles Foster, born in 1826 ‘with the scent of lumber in his nostrils and wood dust in his lungs.’ Shrewdly securing patents from potential rivals, Foster monopolised the toothpick trade, creating a market by inflating it duplicitously. He’d hire handsome young men (‘utterly lacking in all other qualities necessary to earn a living’) to eat at fancy restaurants and loudly demand toothpicks. He paid others to repeatedly ask stationery stores for mouth cleaners. He’d then swing in, offering his toothpicks. After shopkeepers put them on sale, he’d send employees to buy up their stock, only to resell it again, exaggerating demand.

If the book’s focus seems obsessively narrow, Petroski uses the micro to ponder the interdependency between technology and culture. He goes beyond toothpicks, explaining how nothing made ever works perfectly, and how all tools are essentially extensions of our bodies and their extremities. This approach backfires occasionally, as Petroski overburdens the topic: ‘The story of the toothpick is the story of Everyone and Everything at Everytime.’

Indeed, his oral fixation is as double-edged as his subject. The lists of minutiae, endearing at the outset, become rather desultory. A sharper editor might have dislodged some of the more pernickety details. But Petroski doesn’t care about getting to the point: he’s as awed by the toothpick as a 19th century shopkeeper. And he manages to tell a very big story about a very small thing.

Adam Leith Gollner is the author of Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession, to be published in May 2008 by Scribner

Resume: All I want for Christmas is to pick my teeth / to pick my teeth / to pick my teeth / All I want for Christmas is to pick my teeth / then I could wish you ‘Merry Christmas’

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