atm-logoHow did cowboys brush their teeth?

Byron Lloyd
Snellville, Georgia

Tools to clean teeth have been around since prehistoric times. The forerunner to the toothbrush was a “chew stick”—a twig with a frayed tip on one end that acted as a brush.

The Chinese invented the first toothbrush, in 1498, using hog or horsehair bristle, but the first U.S. patent for this toothbrush didn’t come until 1857; it wasn’t mass-produced until 1885. Americans didn’t routinely brush their teeth until the 1940s, when WWII soldiers taught them to brush daily.

Movies would have us believe that everyone on the frontier had clean, healthy teeth. Truth is, nearly everyone had rotten teeth, or their choppers were stained by tobacco or coffee (which may explain why most folks didn’t smile in period photos).

Folks also weren’t as aware of how germs spread. A community toothbrush, which hung in stagecoach stations and other public eating places, was shared by anybody who felt compelled to clean his or her teeth.


Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian. His latest book is Wyatt Earp: Showdown at Tombstone.

If you have a question, write:  Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at

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