Mr. Weston’s Toothbrush

I’m reading a book set in the early 1800s. A couple of days ago I came across this scene involving the Main Character, her married friend, the friend’s husband, and the husband’s son by his first wife. They are inspecting a local inn to see if its accommodations are suitable for a dance they are planning.

The married friend–we’ll call her Mrs. Weston–expresses “some little distress” at the condition of the wallpaper.

“Look! in places you see it is dreadfully dirty; and the wainscot is more yellow and forlorn than any thing I could have imagined.”

“My dear, you are too particular,” said her husband. “What does all that signify? You will see nothing of it by candlelight. It will be as clean as [our house] by candlelight. We never see any thing of it on our club-nights.”

The ladies here probably exchanged looks which meant, “Men never know when things are dirty or not;” and the gentlemen perhaps thought each to himself, “Women will have their little nonsenses and needless cares.”

This passage was especially meaningful, since that very morning I had inspected the freestanding toothbrush holder in the bathroom. I have not kept my own toothbrush in the holder for years because someone in this house–there are three suspects–apparently deposits his toothbrush streaming wet. The water drains to the bottom of the holder and grows foul unless someone (that would be me) empties it every few days and wipes out the bottom. When things get busy, as they have been lately, this does not happen.

And indeed, when I removed the perforated top, I found a quarter-inch of something that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike pond scum. I emptied the container (never, ever buy a freestanding toothbrush holder that does not have a removable lid), rinsed it out, dried it with a Kleenex® tissue and was all set to put back the toothbrushes when I saw that–

Yuuuuck! Something was growing on the bottom of a couple of the handles! Hadn’t anybody noticed that? I mean, mildew smells!

Wiping them down didn’t do it. While I was steeping the toothbrush handles in a solution of  bleach and water, the owner of one of those toothbrushes wandered through the kitchen and said, “I understand why you are doing this.”

Which means this person was aware of the problem. I can’t get my mind around the fact that this person didn’t do anything about it.

But thanks to my recent reading, I now realize that being dirt-impaired is not a moral failing or a stereotype perpetuated by TV sitcoms. It is a phenomenon that has been observed for centuries–the passage about the peeling wallpaper is in Emma, by Jane Austen, which was first printed in 1815.

I shudder to consider the probable state of Mr. Weston’s toothbrush.

Note: for a look at what Mr. Weston’s toothbrush might have looked like and other details about how people in Jane’s time cared for their teeth, see this post in Nineteen Teen, a blog about being a teenager in the 19th century. The bloggers are both writers of YA historical fiction: Marissa Doyle (Bewitching Season, Betraying Season) and Regina Scott (La Petite Four and a whole bunch of Regency romances).

© 2010 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

This entry was posted in History Stuff, The Examined Life, YA novels and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Mr. Weston’s Toothbrush

  1. Anne M Leone says:

    Hah! Though to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel and worried about the state of a character’s toothbrush. =)


  2. Marcia says:

    So where do you keep your toothbrush, and how come I bet there’s a reason you let them keep theirs in the holder? 😀


    • Anne Bingham says:

      On the other side of the sink, in a heavy plastic tumbler. I moved mine years ago because four toothbrushes in a six-hole holder was crowded, and it seemed to me that giving everybody a little more space would reduce the likelihood of cross-contamination.


  3. Amy Lou says:

    I so relate. I regularly run the toothbrushes and holder through the dishwasher–Family (guys) think I’m “such a girl.”


    • Anne Bingham says:

      I recently read a book by a founding member of the American Academy for Oral Systemic Health that recommends replacing your toothbrush more frequently than twice a year and rinsing it out with 1/2 ounce of Listerine every day. The book’s called Kiss Your Dentist Goodbye, and the author is Ellie Phillips, DDS.


      • What a great discussion – brush cleaning is vital for health. You know what was on your brush handles – can you imagine what grows in the bristles?

        Cavities and gum disease are a contagious and transmissible bacterial disease. The bacteria spread by sharing food, kissing people and on brushes!

        My husband uses a UV sanitizer – but I use Listerine, rinse the brush and allow it to dry. Good news – bacteria die when they dry!

        Perhaps oral hygiene became worse with the invention of toothbrushes ( almost 90 percent of US adults today have gum disease). Never store in bags or under covers. Before brushes, Native Americans used sticks from birch trees that contained a natural plaque antibacterial – xylitol!


        • Anne Bingham says:

          Thanks for adding to the discussion, Dr. Phillips! (Full disclosure: After I replied to Amy’s comment, I thought I’d alert Dr. Phillips that I’d mentioned her book and tracked down her website.)


  4. Eeuuuw! As soon as I hit comment I’m checking out the toothbrush holder!


  5. MaryWitzl says:

    Once I saw a collection of ivory-handled Victorian toothbrushes. They were just incredibly gross and I was amazed that anyone could have brought herself to pick one up, much less put it in her mouth.

    I have a toothbrush, but I only use it occasionally — I use dental floss and chew on wood instead and that keeps my teeth incredibly clean. (And no, people don’t keel over when I talk to them!) But the others in this household have less than satisfactory toothbrush manners and they should be VERY happy that I haven’t blogged about this yet. And very afraid too…


    • Anne Bingham says:

      Your Iroquois roots are showing, Mary! Or else your termite genes. Apparently chewing on certain woods–I believe birch is one–releases xylitol, a wood sugar that changes the mouth chemistry and inhibits the growth of decay-causing bacteria. I’m pretty sure I read that Native Americans did this regularly (at least the woodland tribes) but I’m not near my reference book at the moment.


  6. MaryWitzl says:

    Nigerians do this too — they chew on a particular tree bark and never use toothbrushes.

    I’ve had people tell me I’m going to ruin my teeth by not brushing them, but my dentist is always saying that he’d trade with me. That xylitol must be working!


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