top of page

The Flat Cap on ... Toothpaste

Today The Flat Cap has been for a job interview at a swanky set of new offices in Salford called The Soapworks on Colgate Lane. Although he doesn’t expect to get the job this did get him thinking about what was manufactured there before the conversion to office suites. Unsurprisingly the answer was soap and toothpaste. As The Flat Cap has already shared his musings on soap in a previous blog he thought he would try to write something interesting about toothpaste instead.

Toothpaste dates back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used it, so did the Greeks and the Romans, and the Chinese. Early toothpaste was largely tooth powder. Back then only rich people could afford to spend money on dental hygiene. A pharaoh would have had it delivered, so would an emperor, or maybe even the manager of a large merchant bank. Poor people however were too busy trying to make a living from farming, or looking after livestock that they could fatten up and eat with what was left of their own rubbish teeth. As today, the idea of toothpaste was to keep gums and teeth clean and fit for purpose. Early toothpastes contained abrasive ingredients like crushed bones and oyster shells which were rubbed on teeth and gums to get rid of plaque and other nasty stuff. At the same time it probably rubbed away the enamel, but that seemed a small price to pay not to look like your gap toothed cleaner. It also helped if you didn’t have bad breath, so the Romans added flavouring to try to combat halitosis. This was partly because the Romans were big on orgies and it rather dampened the mood if participants’ breath smelled like old drains. One emperor, Caligula, got so fed up with women turning up to orgies with bad breath that eventually he preferred to sleep with his horse.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that toothpaste actually came into being as an actual paste. In 1873 Colgate started mass production of toothpaste, and this was sold in jars. Toothpaste tubes, initially made from lead, then began appearing from the 1890s. These early toothpastes contained soap, only you couldn’t really tell. Obviously if you told your children to rub soap on their teeth today they would refuse. And if you tried to make them do so there would be a social worker round the next day and the kids would probably be taken into care.

In olden times it was the done thing to rub crushed bones and charcoal on your teeth and nobody got upset, or thought to phone the council. It was also harder to tell if small children had been rubbing charcoal on their teeth as many of them had chimney cleaning jobs outside of school and this left them looking grubby anyway.

As toothpaste became more popular scientists started tinkering with the ingredients. The first toothpaste to contain disinfectants was named Kolynos after the Greek words kolyo and nosos meaning disease prevention. So popular was the brand that it even got a mention in the literary classic, The Catcher in the Rye. Fluoride is something else that got put in toothpaste and is meant to reduce the risk of cavities. The Flat Cap thinks chemistry is fascinating and when he was a child he was given a chemistry set for Christmas one year. He had great fun making things fizz, froth and explode. By Boxing Day however his mum had taken it off him after he burnt a hole in the living room carpet. The Flat Cap thinks he could have been another Professor Brian Cox, but for that little accident.

Not all scientists are as nice or as ethical as Brian Cox. In May 2007, a Panamanian named Eduardo Arias discovered a toothpaste that listed the poison diethylene glycol or DEG amongst its ingredients. It was traced back to some guys in China who claimed it was not dangerous. Then in June counterfeit toothpaste tubes appeared in the United States with a great number ending up in hospitals for the mentally ill, prisons and other state institutions. This didn’t go down well - literally. Some people complained of headaches after brushing their teeth. The following month counterfeit Sensodyne toothpaste was detected at a car boot sale in Derbyshire. Soon after that discovery more than thirty brands in thirty countries were identified. This world outcry made the Chinese ban the practice of putting poison in toothpaste. Professor Brian Cox wouldn’t poison anyone, and anyway he’s too busy touring the country and letting us know interesting facts like, “when you fall into a black hole you will literally be spaghettified”. This is a jolly useful piece of information for anyone who has to walk past a black hole on their way to work, or on their journey home from school.

The Flat Cap spoke to a telephone engineer who was digging his own black hole in the next road (in order to lay some new cables) and he, surprisingly, was able to provide some amazing toothpaste related facts:

  • In 2015 a UK survey listed leaving the top off the toothpaste as the second most annoying thing in the country (after not putting the toilet seat back down)

  • Only a small handful of scientists know the secret of how to put stripes on toothpaste

  • On average an adult uses twenty gallons of toothpaste every year

  • Some toothpastes contain microbeads; tiny pieces of plastic that are so small you can’t see them even with a microscope. They get into our water systems and are now finding their way into the food chain. These beads are found inside oysters, mussels, lobsters and fish, none of which possess microscopic eyesight

  • The internet is full of homemade recipes, should you want to make your own organic toothpaste

  • Foamless, ingestible toothpaste was created in the 1960s so that astronauts could still brush their teeth whilst in space, just as long as they were careful enough to avoid any black holes

  • TV presenter and explorer Bear Grylls has really good teeth despite never taking any toothpaste on his expeditions. His teeth are so good that he can survive by eating tree stumps, or chewing on pieces of rock like say a beaver or a real bear

  • Psychologists claim you can tell if a child will grow up to be a shoplifter, or not, just from analysis of the way they squeeze their toothpaste

  • The largest ever tube of toothpaste weighed 780 kilograms (1,719 lbs), and was almost ten feet long. It took nine hours to fill to capacity

  • In 2014 an unused tube of toothpaste dating back to 1894 sold at auction for £11,000

bottom of page