This week marks the seventh week straight that the numbers of new Covid cases and Covid-related hospitalizations have been down in my little corner of the world. That’s great news. Vaccines are rolling out, never as quickly as everyone would like, but we’re making progress. And we are beginning to see hints that bits of normalcy are slowly, cautiously returning.
Also this week I went to the dentist for a regular cleaning and checkup, which is pretty normal, but it was especially, wonderfully normal this time, because I got a purple a toothbrush.
I should explain that though I regularly see my dentist every six months, I had been just a few weeks out from an appointment when the pandemic changed everyone’s everything around these parts. My appointment was indefinitely postponed while my dentist office figured out how to keep themselves and their patients safe while also putting their hands inside people’s mouths.
I didn’t like missing that appointment. I have pretty good teeth and I do my best to take care of my smile, but missing that checkup felt wrong. I imagine it’s a little bit how William Addis felt when he went to jail in 1770 and began to think his oral hygiene routine was insufficient.
Entrepreneur, rag trader, and apparent rabble-rouser William Addis went to prison for inciting a riot in the Spitalfields district of London. It’s not entirely clear what Addis was rioting about. There was a great deal of unrest in the area at the time, primarily among silk weavers who were demanding better pay and generally not getting along very well with one another. A handful of men were hanged for their alleged part in inciting such riots, but Addis, or course, was not among them. Perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time as so many people are when rioting is involved.
But regardless of why it happened, Addis found himself in prison, contemplating his grimy teeth. As he did so, his attention was caught by a broom being swept across the floor outside his cell and he was struck with sudden inspiration. Instead of wiping his teeth with a cloth and a bit of soot, or crushed shell, or coal dust, or salt, or whatever, he wondered if a mouth-sized broom might be more effective.
The story goes that the next night he set to work drilling small holes into a bone he’d saved from his dinner. Then he obtained a few bits of broom bristle, stuck them in the holes, and secured them to the bone with some kind of wire or glue. And the first tooth brush was born.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. The first toothbrush, or something like it, was probably invented more than five hundred years earlier in a Chinese prison. Or possibly not in a prison at all. But most likely in China. Addis didn’t even coin the word toothbrush, which first showed up in print in 1690.
Such a clever device hadn’t really caught on in Europe, though. Addis saw an opening in the market and as soon as he’d served his time, he set up his operation becoming the first man to mass-produce tooth brushes, made with bone handles and hair from a boar.
The company he started eventually became Wisdom Toothbrushes, which is still going strong, producing about 70 million toothbrushes per year. They did trade in the bone and boar hair design for a synthetic nylon version when that became a better option.
I’m pretty serious about toothbrushes. I dutifully replace mine every few months, and every six months, I bring a new one home from the dentist. It’s not a Wisdom toothbrush, which I understand markets primarily in England. It’s a boring Oral-B, which was invented in the fifties by a periodontist who I don’t believe ever went to prison. But it is always purple.
The first time, about eight years ago now, I visited my current dental office, the hygienist asked me what color toothbrush I wanted. I’m almost as serious about dental hygienists as I am about toothbrushes, and it meant a lot that in addition to being gentle and fast and really good at not asking direct questions when her hands are actively in my mouth, this one took the time to figure out my toothbrush color preference.
In eight years, she’s never asked again, yet after every visit, there is a purple Oral-B in my paper sack of dental floss, toothpaste sample, and return appointment reminder. It’s become part of my normal.
So, when the office finally began offering appointments again and I got squeezed into a spot on a different hygienist’s schedule, it felt wrong. The new hygienist was also good. She was gentle and fast and seemed very nice. She didn’t ask me any direct questions while her fingers were actively in my mouth.
But she gave me a green toothbrush. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t realize her mistake until I was in the parking lot. What could I do? I wasn’t going to be the crazy lady who walked back in to demand a purple toothbrush.
That’s why it was such a relief this week when I walked into the office and was greeted by my regular hygienist and walked back out after my appointment with a brand-new purple Oral-B. It felt like emerging from prison with a better way of doing things. Probably. I’ve never actually emerged from prison. Or been there in the first place. I’m not much of rabble-rouser. But try to give me another green toothbrush and I might just carve it into a shiv.