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The Toothpick: Technology and Culture

Petroski, Henry Author

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Like The Pencil, Henry Petroski’s The Toothpick is a celebration of a humble yet elegant device. As old as mankind and as universal as eating, this useful and ubiquitous tool finally gets its due in this wide-ranging and compulsively readable book. Here is the unexpected story of the simplest of implements—whether made of grass, gold, quill, or wood—a story of engineering and design, of culture and class, and a lesson in how to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Petroski takes us back to ancient Rome, where the emperor Nero makes his entrance into a banquet hall with a silver toothpick in his mouth; and to a more recent time in Spain, where a young señorita uses the delicately pointed instrument to protect her virtue from someone trying to steal a kiss. He introduces us to Charles Forster, a nineteenth-century Bostonian and father of the American toothpick industry, who hires Harvard students to demand toothpicks in area restaurants—thereby making their availability in eating establishments as expected as condiments.

And Petroski takes us inside the surprisingly secretive toothpick-manufacturing industry, in which one small town’s factories can turn out 200 million wooden toothpicks a day using methods that, except for computer controls, haven’t changed much in almost 150 years. He also explores a treasure trove of the toothpick’s unintended uses and perils, from sandwiches to martinis and beyond.

With an engineer’s eye for detail and a poet’s flair for language, Petroski has earned his reputation as a writer who explains our world—from the tallest buildings to the lowliest toothpick—to us.

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About the Author:

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. The author of more than a dozen books, he lives in Durham, North Carolina, and Arrowsic, Maine.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

The plain wooden toothpick, it may be argued, is among the simplest of manufactured things. It consists of a single part, made of a single material, intended for a single purpose–from which it gets its simple name. It is also among the most convenient and ready of things. It can be used directly out of the box–there being no instructions to read, no parts to assemble, no priming or booting required, and no maintenance expected. When it has served its purpose, it is simply discarded.

Such simplicity of design and use might lead one to expect an equally simple and straightforward history, one easily researched and explicated by a student doing a term paper. In the twenty-first century, such a student would very likely navigate around the World Wide Web via Google or some other digital search engine and come up with enough snippets to stitch together a plausible story–as long as the sources were unquestioned, the gaps glossed over, and the contradictions ignored. Of the quotations rustled up from the Web and corralled at the beginning of this book, every one but the statement about generating power from wood waste is at best a half-truth.

In fact, the full and true story of something even so simple as the toothpick cannot easily be gleaned from the Internet alone. Unfortunately, more traditional sources of information and scholarship, such as manuscripts, articles, books, and other written materials in archives and analog libraries, also often provide sparse, erroneous, and contradictory information for topics considered too banal for and thus neglected by scholars seeking to pursue grander things and themes.

The very simplicity and banality of the thing made the toothpick and its manufacture an artifact of tacit knowledge and trade secrets. Even in the late twentieth century, Japanese visitors who showed up at a Maine toothpick factory were turned away, lest they see the tricks of the trade. An American scholar, who should hardly have been seen as a potential competitor, was similarly denied entrance to a Minnesota counterpart. He had to go to Sweden to see some toothpicks being made.

Secrecy coupled with a dearth of reliable, confirmable documentary material makes the task of uncovering the real story of a common object a challenge for ordinary scholarship relying on the usual scholarly sources. But there are other sources of information, not least of which is the artifact itself and the documented social and cultural context in which it has been made and used. Much of the story of the toothpick must be coaxed out of the thing itself and its milieu. With patience, slivers of it can be teased out of even a closed box of toothpicks the way a stubborn seed eventually can be dislodged from between the teeth. Insights into the use and misuse of things can be gleaned from both the froth and the detritus of society.

Whatever its history, the toothpick-manufacturing process has become so automated and efficient that no human hand touches the product until it is taken up to be used. An antiseptic toothpick costs but a fraction of a fraction of a cent, and it can be tossed away after a single use. Since it is made of untreated wood, the biodegradable toothpick presents no substantial danger to the environment. At first glance, it seems not easily implicated in global warming–until we remember that trees have been sacrificed for and energy consumed in its production.

But as neglected, small, insignificant, and inconsequential as the artifact might seem to be, the story of the toothpick holds great potential for revealing often hidden and frequently overlooked relationships among the people and things of the world. As Archimedes asserted that, if he were given a long enough lever and a place on which to stand, he could move the earth, so we can imagine that, given a toothpick and a sense of its place in history, we can nudge our understanding of technology and culture a bit farther.

Since the toothpick is a technological and cultural artifact, its use and significance are determined by its producers and consumers as they have over time been embedded in the life of business and the business of life. Individuals can develop a dependency on toothpicks, a preference for certain shapes and sizes, and a set of habits and rituals surrounding their use. Society, ever subject to the fads and fashions that it itself creates, imposes changing expectations on the availability of toothpicks and on the manner and acceptability of their use. Different classes of people, being attuned to different social rhythms and cultural clocks, develop different relationships with toothpicks. This is naturally part of the story.

Because common things so easily transcend limits of time and place, their story is not readily confined to a single period or to a single culture. The history of the toothpick is as old as mankind and as universal as eating. Its story knows no disciplinary bounds, and it is revealed in the records of anthropology as surely as in the annals of etiquette. It is an international story, with chapters set in prehistoric Africa, ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Portugal, and modern Brazil, China, Japan, Sweden, and the United States, to name but a few of its backdrops. The story of the toothpick is the story of Everyone and Everything at Everytime.

Things get their names and reputations from people, and it is people who also dictate how things are spoken of and used. As much as its name defines a single intended purpose, the toothpick has been adapted to countless other uses. Like any tool or device, the toothpick has been called into service when something else was not available or suitable to the task at hand. This, too, is part of the story of the thing, as is its propensity to spawn an infrastructure of boxes, cases, dispensers, holders, and other contraptions that can be as extraordinarily diverse and complex as the one-part machine that they support is simple.

To an engineer, the challenge of mass-producing something like a toothpick with sufficient efficiency that it can be sold at a profit holds a special fascination. The origins and rise of the mechanized toothpick industry in the latter half of the nineteenth century make for a fascinating chapter in the history of manufacturing, as do the human stories of inventors and innovators such as Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant and Charles Forster, along with their inventions, their patents and patent rights, and their struggles through failures on their way to achieving successes. It is in this chapter of the story that the history of the modest toothpick assumes heroic proportions and provides especially poignant lessons for the technological enterprises of today and tomorrow.



Chapter One: The Oldest Habit

Nothing can be more annoying than having a piece of food stuck between our teeth. As tiny as it might really be, in time it can seem to grow out of all proportion to its place in the mouth. As the pea under the princess’s mattress prevented her from enjoying a night’s sleep, so a tiny seed between molars can deny the diner much-anticipated postprandial peace and satisfaction. Like a grain of sand between two millstones, the foreign matter grates on us until it is worked free.

We have all devised our own preferred methods for dealing with the problem, but when we are not alone some of us may be constrained by social strictures to work within a closed mouth. Our tongue is often the instrument of choice, but the tongue’s soft, blunt tip is usually ineffective. We have to flex and strain the muscles that harden and point it, and the process can be excruciatingly trying, tiring, and not really so private or inconspicuous as we might wish.

When wooden matches were commonly found near the kitchen stove, they were convenient to be split or whittled into toothpicks. One uninhibited character in a 1920s novel entered a shop “still helping the breadcrust out of his teeth . . . with his tongue,” supplemented by a split matchstick, which was a sure giveaway of his plight.[1] However, even without opening our mouth to use a pointed tool, whenever we proceed to drag the tongue across and thrust it between our teeth at a repast’s tenacious residue, we reveal our mission by the bulge moving around our lips and cheeks like a mole beneath the lawn.

Sucking at the stuck debris can sometimes be effective, but not always easily for stubborn little things. It takes more than eight pages in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, involving “sucking at a crevice in his teeth,” among other efforts, for the character Cranly to dislodge fig seeds.[2] We can also try squirting saliva between the teeth to flush out some unfriendly food debris. However, like vacuuming a rug or washing windows with a water hose, such actions can be noisy. The overzealous tooth sucker whose lips slip apart can sound like a wet kisser bussing the air, the too-eager spit squisher like someone squeezing a wet sponge.

The finger can be an effective lever to move what will not otherwise budge, but in many circles its use points to the defeat of other means. Besides, like the tongue, the finger is usually too blunt an instrument for the task at hand, and some people have been known to “grow a long finger nail especially for picking teeth.”[3] Sometimes, even an ordinary fingernail can be enlisted successfully, but implementing it as a solution can seldom be done with grace.

The most common alternative to natural and self-contained means is, of course, the familiar wooden toothpick. Where social strictures do not censure its use, the toothpick can be a most effective tool to succeed where tongue and fingers fail. As all tools are extensions of our bodies and their extremities, so the toothpick is an extension of the finger. It allows us to reach into the back of our mouth more easily and effectively, a need that has existed coevally with the need for food itself. Indeed, it has been suggested that “...

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