Folk Art

Make-Do Toothbrush!!!
  • We are always accused of being a throw-away society (and I agree with that accusation) but the ultimate in green living is to waste not, want not. When something broke, our ancestors fixed it or repurposed it into something usable. “Waste Not Want Not” is the philosophy behind make-do objects and also the name of the only book I’ve found about Make-Do. The book is by Donald P. Naetzker. It is out of print but sometimes found on used book sites. When I can find a decent copy at a good price, I offer it for sale.

    I've always loved the early make-do pieces because they show us how precious things were to our ancestors. Although a make-do is a utilitarian object that has had repairs to make it serviceable or turn it into something else, they fall into both the categories of Folk Art and Decorative Arts. I find that so many of them are great folk art because they really show the creative ability of non-artists who make the most of an accidental break.

    Have you ever seen a make-do toothbrush? Hey, I never even thought of a make-do toothbrush nor did I think about the history of the toothbrush until I acquired this little make-do! According to Wikipedia, the predecessor to the toothbrush was a twig that was frayed on one end for brushing and sharp on the other end to use as a toothpick. The first bristle toothbrush was used during the Tang Dynasty (619-907). The Chinese attached hog hair to bone or bamboo handles and, voilà, oral hygiene just got a lot better. The Chinese-style of toothbrush traveled to Europe who adopted it during the 17th century. However, Europeans replaced the hog-hair bristles with that of horse-hair which was softer and less damaging to the mouth. William Addis is believed to have mass-produced the first bristle toothbrush in 1780. Addis “invented” the bristle toothbrush in 1770 while jailed and looking for a more effective way to clean teeth than with a rag and salt or soot. Mr. Addis appears to have had a lot of time on his hands and mind….but, aren’t we glad he had the time to come up with and make his invention (which he made from a bone saved from dinner). Addis’s family mass-manufactured bristle toothbrushes as Wisdom Toothbrushes until 1996 when the business was sold….and still manufactures toothbrushes. The first patent for a toothbrush was granted to H.N. Wadsworth in 1857 (U.S.A. Patent No. 18,653), but mass production in the United States did not start until 1885. The improved design had a bone handle with holes bored into it for the Siberian boar hair bristles.

    So, now that you have a brief history of the toothbrush, let’s look at this fine (well-used) toothbrush make-do. The bristles are of some natural hair inserted into a bone backing. Surely, the bone originally ran the full length of the toothbrush but at some time in its well-used life, the handle broke. The owner needed his toothbrush quickly fixed or replaced. So, ingenuity prevailed and the bone head was inserted into a wood handle which had split and lost whatever it was handle for (my guess is a knife). A wire was wound around the wood handle to keep the split closed and a new use was born. Don’t ask me how the owner got the wire smooth enough to use on a toothbrush, but it really has been smoothed. Whoever used this toothbrush should have been taught not to brush so hard as to wear down the brush….but you can see how well worn the brush really is.

    You can’t make these stories up folks! Well, you can, but you need props like the real live make-do toothbrush. I started this listing by thinking that we can’t prove what the brush was used for—and we really can’t prove that it wasn’t used for….say….scrubbing floors. But the size is right for a toothbrush and now that I’ve read the history, I’m a believer. But, whether you think it is a toothbrush or a brush for some other use, it is still a cool make-do object. And well-used too! Late 19th to early 20th century.

    #6692    $175

    Reference: Naetzker, Donald P., Waste Not, Want Not: The Art of the Make-Do, 1986.