mm228: Toothpicks — Good to great to gone

MUDGE’S Musings

We journey from the future: nanotechnology (mm227) directly to the past and our stomach-churning present.

Thanks to the always wonderful (and never consulted sufficiently) Arts & Letters Daily, we were directed to an entertaining article in a(n embarrassingly) new to this writer publication, The American, detailing the history of the lowly, unglamorous toothpick.

Faithful reader may recall that the history of technology is one of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©‘s abiding interests, but I had never paid much attention to the toothpick in any way, much less thought about its origins and provenance. Turns out to be most fascinating, and highlights what was absolutely world-beating about American inventiveness and marketing prowess. And lowlights what is manifestly frightening about what’s happened to factories and their well paid jobs in the past 40 years.

theamerican

The Glorious Toothpick

By Henry Petroski From the November/December 2007 Issue

Filed under: Culture, Lifestyle, Public Square

The humble mass-produced toothpick is a paradigm for American manufacturing: inspiration, invention, marketing, trade, success, and failure. HENRY PETROSKI explains.

Image credit: photograph by Geoff Spear.

Glorious ToothpickThe plain wooden toothpick is among the sim­plest of manufactured things. It consists of a single part, made of a single material, and is intended for a single purpose, from which it takes its name. But simple things do not necessarily come easily, and the story of the mass-produced toothpick is one of preparation, inspiration, invention, marketing, competition, success and failure in a global econ­omy, and changing social customs and cultural values. In short, the story of the toothpick is a par­adigm for American manufacturing.

Early wooden toothpicks were found objects, each fashioned ad hoc from a broken twig or stalk with a pointed end. Often, the other end of the twig was chewed until its fibers separated to form a primitive toothbrush called a chew-stick. Some cultures, like the Japanese, developed rigid rules about how such sticks were held and used.

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.

Not a mechanic, Forster found an inventive genius in Boston who was mechanizing the manufacture of shoes, which used wooden pegs that the inventor had created machinery to produce. Forster envisioned that the peg machine could be modified to manufacture toothpicks.

Once his machinery was producing toothpicks by the wagonload, he needed to sell them. He built a market in Boston (where folks were accustomed to whittling their picks themselves) by sending out paid shills to demand them at general stores, or dine at restaurants and then ask for a toothpick, which of course the stores and restaurants never thought to stock. Then Forster would come along, with inexpensive smooth, uniform toothpicks for sale. From Boston, the use of cheap machine-made toothpicks very quickly became an artifact of American culture.

The Glorious Toothpick — The American, A Magazine of Ideas

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Toothpicks are no longer manufactured in Maine; some comparative few in Minnesota (still a few trees there, one supposes) but mostly now in China and Southeast Asia, from inferior wood, although you still can find them with the Forster brand. But the use of toothpicks has declined in most Western cultures, as awareness of better tools for dental health has become widespread.

The toothpick is emblematic of the cataclysmic changes this country is realizing, as the manufacture of all types of products, sophisticated big screen high definition televisions as well as toothpicks, have rapidly moved offshore toward cheap labor. Now the big business in many small towns is the local state prison, which fill to overflowing with petty drug users serving federally mandated terms all out of proportion to the nature of the crime. Ugh.

And the shells of those old factories, that once cut and sewed cloth for America’s apparel; that once cut and scored cardboard to make the boxes that shipped the dresses; that once housed the machine tools that forged the machinery that once populated all of those factories: the rehabilitated shells of those old factories deep in the hearts of our big cities and small, are now the trendy loft homes of the young and trendy.

Lately of course, due to the communications and information revolution largely invented and financed here, and whose growth was fertilized through creative marketing here, even service jobs are migrating toward increasingly sophisticated yet in Western terms low priced centers like Bengaluru and Manila.

Which brings us back to nanotechnology, and other technology of the future. Get busy, engineering and scientific and financial and marketing geniuses, ’cause we can’t afford those 65-inch big screens and those $5,000 per month loft leases on a McDonald’s paycheck.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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