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London: Giving thanks for the toothbrush -- and this odd oral history

As you contemplate your blessings at Thanksgiving, here's one for which you can thank an Englishman: the toothbrush. That’s just one of the things you'll learn at a small dental museum hidden in the upper-crust medical area of London. It’s offbeat to be sure, but one you can, well, sink your teeth into.

The British Dental Museum’s 20,000 items tell much of the history of the discipline, including the fact that William Addis, confined in Newgate jail after participating in a riot, was key to helping people embrace the brush. Addis popularized the concept in 1780. 

The brushes had a bone handle and stiff pig’s bristles or horse hair and were still too expensive for many. For most of the 19th century, as wincingly colorful illustrations show, it would have been a barber, blacksmith, wigmaker or silversmith who yanked out any problem gnashers, no matter where you lived.

Inside the front door of this tiny exhibition is an 1890 dentist’s setup, and it’s very familiar: the red reclining chair, a focused light and a spittoon. But then there’s a drill, a wheel contraption powered by foot -- and in use in Britain as late as the 1970s, when strikes caused power outages.

There are also glossy boxes of shiny, pointy instruments, ivory and “Waterloo Teeth” dentures, beautifully designed pots, tubs and pill boxes for the various powders and pastes you lathered your brush with -- in early days they could have contained charcoal, brick dust and chalk -- and of course tooth keys, which were placed over the offending rotten molar and, as its name suggests, twisted until the no-longer pearly white popped out.

Small cabinets show how replacing risky ether and chloroform with anesthetic made fillings an alternative to always extracting, and how pushes for licensing and regulation in Britain brought dental care to the masses.

Barely a century ago schools formed Toothbrush Clubs to pass on the message. Today’s world of whitening strips, mouthwash and cheap, throwaway toothbrushes is hard to imagine when the British Dental Assn. posters of the time were simply trying to get you to brush twice a day.

Info: British Dental Museum, 64 Wimpole St., London; open 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays

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