You might not think of dentistry when you think of collector’s items, but you’d be wrong. Dentistry has had a rich history dating back thousands of years, each civilization having its own methods of oral hygiene. In modern times, dental instruments have even been auctioned off by the big names like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
One collector is especially keen on the acquisition of dental artifacts. His name is Dr. Ben Swanson. He’s the former president of the American Academy of the History of Dentistry as well as founding executive and former museum director of the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore.
He now privately holds a collection of over 40,000 dental artifacts from all ages. He had once hoped to collect every kind of toothbrush in existence, but has settled for a few hundred and a plethora of other fascinating pieces. Though he doesn’t possess every toothbrush, thanks to his years of collecting, he gives a solid history on the toothbrush’s development.
Toothbrushes, or instruments for cleaning teeth, go back thousands of years. The first that we have evidence of come from about five thousand years ago. They were found among the Egyptians and Babylonians and basically just chewing sticks. After this, the Chinese introduced the more modern looking brush in the Middle Ages, with bristles made from pig’s hair.
Dr. Swanson says the next major leap came in the 19th century when William Addis patented his toothbrush. Made from bone and boar’s hair for the bristles, they remained too coarse for mass consumption. Most people, including fellow dentists, complained of bleeding gums and pain. It wouldn’t be until the advent of synthetic fibers in the 1940s that toothbrushes would become the household item it is today.
But brushes are only one area of artifacts. Postcards—believe it or not—used to feature dental products on them from back in the day. Swanson has collected a large amount and allowed them to be copied as novelties, as seen here.
However, the coolest artifact that Dr. Swanson ever acquired occurred in 1994. While director of the Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore he took part in an auction with Christie’s for Queen Victoria’s personal dental tools. It was a nerve racking affair, but Dr. Swanson managed to nab them for 14,000 pounds, which added up to $24,000. Sure it may seem steep, but it was worth it.
Dr. Swanson continues to collect and even has a site with a wish list of artifacts. So before you throw out that old toothbrush, why not throw it in a container and keep it in the attic for 80 years. Could be worth something.