CHSTM Research Seminar: 30 May 2023
30 May 2023, 4pm
CHSTM Seminar Room: Simon 2.57 [maps and travel]
The seminar will also be streamed.
Dr Claire Jones, History, University of Kent at Canterbury
An amazing British invention? The toothbrush in 20th century life
Abstract: Before the 1870s, toothbrush use in Britain was generally confined to the elite. With ornate handles made from bone or ivory and bristles from horse-hair, toothbrushes were handcrafted and expensive. But by the 1940s, the toothbrush was a cheap mass-produced commodity made from nylon, with around half the population regularly using one; by the 1970s, the toothbrush was advertised as one of the most amazing inventions in British history. The concomitant twentieth century rise of oral hygiene as a state-sponsored dentist-driven public health initiative, techniques of mass production and chemical manufacture, and a commercial beauty industry were significant factors in transforming this technology from bespoke object to mass-produced commodity and celebrated national invention. Yet in this paper, I attempt to move beyond the remarkable nature of this transformation in order to focus on the more quotidian aspects of toothbrush use. For example, how did users feel about the incorporation of toothbrushing into their daily routines? To what extent was this incorporation resisted? What role did housing provision, particularly in-house plumbing, play in enabling toothbrush use? To what extent did the toothbrush shape bathroom design? Bringing together user perspectives from the history of technology with social and cultural histories of the everyday, I focus on two key themes – the body and the home – to demonstrate how the toothbrush can be viewed as simultaneously mundane and inconspicuous, but also historically and culturally significant beyond innovation-centric models of technology. Indeed, it is precisely the toothbrush’s mundane status that makes it an object worthy of study and an emblematic case study for uncovering the impact of small technologies on everyday life.
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