Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I, the Tooth Pick

In medieval Portugal, a cottage industry developed to produce straightforward hand­made toothpicks, and these splints of orange­wood gained a reputation for being the best in the world. Toothpicks made in the Portuguese tra­dition were common in Brazil in the mid-19th century when Charles Forster, an American work­ing in the import-export trade, found them being crafted and used by natives there. It was a time when the manufacture of just about everything was becoming mechanized in America, and Forster believed that toothpicks could be mass-produced in New England at a cost that would allow them even to be exported to Brazil and compete with the handmade kind.

Since Forster had poor mechanical skills, he had to look to others for help when he retuned to Boston to take up toothpick manufacture. He found assis­tance first in Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, a brilliant inventor who was concentrating on mech­anizing shoe manufacturing. At the time, most shoes were held together with wooden pegs, which were pointed at one end so they could be driven like nails. Sturtevant’s genius was to devise a method for peeling logs into long, narrow, and beveled strips of thin veneer, from which the pegs could be cut and driven by machine. Forster’s genius was to see that, with only minor modifications, double-pointed toothpicks could be produced in much the same way.

Forster was soon making toothpicks in Boston, but people there did not see much point in buying quantities of what they could whittle themselves. To sell his product, Forster devised clever schemes. He hired employees to visit stores and ask for wooden toothpicks, which retailers were not accustomed to carrying. Soon after these disappointed customers left, Forster himself would come in peddling his wares wholesale. As soon as the storekeepers had toothpicks in stock, Forster’s shills would return and buy them. These were then returned to Forster, who recycled them to the trade.

In another scheme, he engaged Harvard students to eat at local restaurants and ask loudly for wooden toothpicks, which the restaurant managers soon felt obligated to provide. Having established a mar­ket in the Boston area, Forster moved his fledgling manufacturing operation to Maine, where white birch grew in abundance. With the help of Charles Freeman—a Sturtevant employee who had been assigned to develop the toothpick machinery—Forster’s mill was soon turning out toothpicks by the millions daily.

Forster had acquired rights to Sturtevant’s pat­ent for the wooden toothpick and the process that produced it. The Forster enterprise flourished, but when patent protection (and, thus, his monop­oly) ended in 1880, competition blossomed and annual production soon reached five billion. It became fashionable for a male diner to leave a restaurant with a toothpick in his mouth and to stand about outside chewing on it. In time, women emulated the practice.

Because of the manner in which they were stamped out of veneer, the first mass-produced toothpicks were flat. Although sold by Forster under the brand name “Ideal,” such toothpicks had drawbacks. They were very flexible and had points that splintered and broke off easily. As a rem­edy, Freeman devised a process that compressed and rounded flat toothpicks. The new products, branded “World’s Fair,” were a vast improvement, and the patent—the rights to which were assigned to Forster—provided a new monopoly.

By the end of the 19th century, the annual pro­duction of wooden toothpicks in America exceeded ten billion. By 1910, the figure reached 25 billion, and a glut of toothpicks ensued. Companies under­sold each other to the point where the price of a toothpick could not meet its manufacturing cost. It was only after the Depression and World War II that production and consumption again soared, with a record 75 billion toothpicks produced annu­ally at mid-century.

This total dropped precipitously by the 1990s, when only a few toothpick companies remained in America. One was Diamond Brands, based in Minnesota, and the other was Forster’s original firm, which had evolved into the Forster Manufacturing Company. Forster’s main surviving plant was in the town of Strong, Maine, which had once been proud to call itself the “Toothpick Capital of the World,” and emblazoned that slogan on its fire truck. But the firm had diversified into a wide variety of wood novelty items, such as checkers and yo-yos....

China is even making “Japanese toothpicks” for export. The modern Japanese toothpick has a sin­gle point, with the other end blunt and encircled with grooves that give it a finial-like appearance. The decorated end is also functional—intended to be broken off at one of the grooves and so signal that the toothpick has been used. The broken-off part also serves as a rest to keep the soiled point from touching the table. Although it may be acceptable to pick one’s teeth at a Japanese table, it is not accept­able to lay one’s used chopsticks or toothpick on the common surface.

-The Glorious Toothpick

Related: Toothpick Sculptures

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