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Digging Into the History of the Humble Toothpick

For author Henry Petroski, the simplest of instruments — be it a pencil or a telephone keypad — can offer fascinating stories of engineering, design and cultural history.

Even toothpicks don't escape his inquisitive eye. His latest book explores the history of this seemingly mundane tool — and why picking our teeth is among mankind's oldest bad habits.

In The Toothpick, Petroski, who is a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, chronicles the instrument's odd and funny history, taking readers back to the time of the Neanderthals. Anthropologists have found evidence of grooves on fossilized teeth that resulted from rough-hewn toothpicks. Later, in ancient Rome, the emperor Nero entered a banquet hall with a silver toothpick lodged in his mouth.

The American toothpick industry owes its success to Charles Forster, a 19th-century Bostonian who hired Harvard students to demand toothpicks in restaurants. He'd return to the restaurant the next day to sell his wares. He used the same tactic at retail stores, gradually making the toothpick a ubiquitous part of the culinary experience.

But the lowly implement has surprisingly secretive manufacturers, who guard their designs closely. In recent years, Petroski writes, Japanese visitors to a toothpick factory were denied entry to protect "tricks of the trade."

Petroski also finds that the toothpick has adapted across cultures. In Japan, traditional toothpicks are pointed at one end only. Decorative grooves at one end enable the end of the toothpick to be broken off to indicate that it has been used. The stub also provides a rest to keep the soiled part from touching the table. In Portugal and other countries, toothpicks are often hand-carved and receive elaborate ornamentation.

Andrea Seabrook spoke with Petroski about his fascination with this three-inch-long stick of wood.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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