In the early 1800s, a pioneering dentist, Levi Spear Parmly, urged patients to clean between their teeth with silk thread — a revolutionary technique that could protect the gum line and prevent tooth decay. But “people just didn’t get it,” says Dr. Scott Swank, curator of the National Museum of Dentistry. In an era during which rotting molars were the norm, he says, “people expected their teeth to fall out.”
The Victorians also loved their toothpicks. After dinner, a gentleman would produce a leather box, reach into its velvet-lined interior, withdraw his gold pick and begin grooming. Charles Dickens owned a toothpick inlaid with ivory and engraved with his initials; it retracted into its own handle like a tiny spyglass. Flossing might have been more effective, but how could it compete with the flash of the toothpick? Back then, silk thread came in unwieldy spools and had to be cut into lengths with a knife. Worse, using it required you to put your fingers into your mouth.
In the 1870s, Asahel Shurtleff helped to civilize floss when he patented the first dispenser: a bobbin of thread with a U-shaped prong sticking out of its side. The prong worked like a tiny metal hand, guiding floss between the teeth. His invention anticipated the portable floss holders you can now buy in drugstores.
Designers have since given us bubble-gum-flavored floss, Gore-Tex strands and tooth-shaped dispensers — all in an attempt to make flossing seem fun or at least not too difficult. Recent studies, meanwhile, have revealed that flossing might be one of the simplest ways to ward off tooth decay. Yet, Swank says: “People still don’t care. Or they don’t want to put their hands in their mouths.” Two centuries on, flossing remains the quintessential thing that we forget — and hate — to do.