The history of the toothpick – the oldest habit of dental cleaning by humans – can be directly traced to artifacts of 5,000 years ago. From ancient times until the 19 century, various civilizations across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas used materials such as bone, slate, ivory, silver, gold, quill and wood to make a variety of handmade toothpicks. However, after the Civil War, a shift occurred in New England from craft to mechanical production of toothpicks.
The Toothpick Mill
While working in the import-export trade for his uncle in Pernambuco, Brazil in the late 1850s, Charles Forster (1826-1901) saw widespread use of toothpicks by the Brazilians. He then saw an opportunity to mass produce them when he returned to Boston. Lacking mechanical skills, he became aware in 1859 of a shoe-pegging machine (i.e., a mechanism for attaching soles to their upper parts) developed by Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant. By 1861 Sturtevant had granted Charlotte Bowman, Forster’s fiancé, the exclusive right to use his 1863 patent for making wooden toothpicks – a byproduct of shoe-peg innovation.
Forster then needed to create demand for his small, plain, pliable, flat (beveled at both edges) implement as debate swirled about its use in private and public settings. Allegedly, to stoke demand in Boston, Forster hired people to ask for toothpicks in restaurants (e.g., in the Union Oyster House), hotels, stationers and other retailers. More likely, his collaboration with Levi Tower, a well-known wholesaler, accounted for his marketing success. Still, Forster sold an estimated 16 million toothpicks in 1869.
Forster initially used willow and maple to make his toothpicks. He finally turned to white birch due to its flavorless taste and strong texture. However, a need for a plentiful supply of the wood forced Forster to relocate to Maine. He operated first in Oxford County, beginning in Sumner in 1870-71. Then he started four more mills in Oxford County: in Buckfield (circa 1872), Canton (1872-74), Andover (1875-1883) and Dixfield (1874). The Andover toothpick mill moved to Strong in Franklin County in 1883. The Dixfield and Strong mills – – Forster’s major operations — operated into the 20th century. He obtained his supply of white birch from large timber mills, farmers and jobbers.
A Lot of Toothpicks
Forster’s patent gave him a virtual monopoly on flat toothpick production. It allowed him to make an estimated 500 million annually by the middle of the 1870s. When the patent expired in 1880, new firms emerged in Maine, including one in Sebec (Piscataquis County) and one in Mechanic Falls (Androscoggin County), and other states. Forster then began searching for a competitive advantage. He soon teamed up with Charles Freeman, who obtained a patent for a machine to make a round toothpick in 1887. Another patent in 1891 for the toothpick itself left the points less prone to splinter. His seasonal male and female employees worked about eight months of the year in Strong and Dixfield. By 1897 they made an estimated 6.5 billion toothpicks.
Responding to increasing demand, Forster bought the J. W. Porter mill in Strong in 1897. From the 1890s onward, his toothpicks were marketed under the “Ideal” and “World’s Fair” trademarks. He sold them both domestically and in several foreign countries.
In 1904, following the death of Forster in 1901, his son Maurice founded the Forster Manufacturing Company in Dixfield and produced toothpicks under the “Gold Medal” brand. A third Dixfield mill, known as the Dixfield Toothpick Company opened in 1909. Both of these firms merged with the Berst Manufacturing Company in 1920, which the Diamond Match Company bought in 1946.
Felled by Floss
Meanwhile, the original company (known as the “Estate of Charles Forster” mill from 1901 to 1936) expanded. It acquired new mills and diversified into flavored toothpicks and other products. During World War II, the firm (now the Forster Manufacturing Company, Inc.) made tongue blades and applicators for the military. After the war, the company expanded its product line in East Wilton (Franklin County) to make ice cream spoons and cocktail forks. In Mattawamkeag (Penobscot County) it made clothespins.
However, by the 1990s other dental hygiene products and cheaper imports from China and Southeast Asia had eroded the toothpick market in America, including Maine. In 1995 Diamond Brands bought the Forster Manufacturing Company. When the Jarden Corporation acquired Diamond Brands in 2003, it closed the last remaining Forster toothpick mill in Strong. The firm was making 7 billion toothpicks annually — down from 20 billion in 1992. Thus, its self-proclaimed title as the “Toothpick Capital of the World” came to an end.
Edward T. Howe, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at Siena College near Albany, N.Y.
Images: Oxford County trees By Wolfpoint – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83369380. Toothpick By HuttyMcphoo – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2053238