A comprehensive report on the ubiquitous wooden sliver’s past, present and future, from the seasoned historian of life’s indispensables.
Though Petroski (Success Through Failure, 2006, etc.) admits to not being a regular toothpick user, his interest for this “simplest of manufactured things” is as limitless as the research material he pored over. In early 1911, grooves found on fossilized teeth suggested the existence of primitive teeth-cleaning utensils, perhaps made from such materials as grass, straw, animal claws, bird quills, rat skeletons, walrus whiskers and raccoon penis bones. The author examines his subject’s highly speculative genesis from an ornate item handmade in Portugal to the mass-produced, machine-made product introduced to America by philanthropic Massachusetts import-export businessman Charles Forster. Petroski also profiles industrious machinist Benjamin Sturtevant, who single-handedly developed the toothpick machine, dubbing it a “minor invention” as compared with the shoe-pegging and exhaust fanning devices he’d built during the same era. Forster saw promise in Sturtevant’s technological genius and brought his toothpick apparatus to Maine (where white birch wood is plentiful), creating a manufacturing, marketing and retailing craze in the late 1880s. Petroski touches on the toothpick’s varying degrees of social acceptance in a consistently interesting section. While it was “worn and used most conspicuously and proudly” during the Renaissance, a pick precariously positioned out of one’s mouth by the 20th century was considered vulgar—or democratically down-to-earth, depending on your point of view. The author taste tests a variety of foreign and domestic picks and graciously offers colorful personal opinions on his varied discoveries. Generous illustrations add texture to the sometimes dry, almost textbook-worthy narrative flow as Petroski examines the toothpick’s boundless uses, from freeing stubborn debris and serving hors d’oeuvres to testing baked goods for doneness or skewering unsympathetic cellmates.
An educational and savory meal, overdone but still flavorful.