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How toothpicks got fancy
The curious history of a tiny teeth-cleaning tool that became an elaborate fashion accessory and a fancy food-skewer
Hello, Snackers. It’s wood, it’s ivory, it’s plastic, it’s metal, it’s a family heirloom, it’s a wee little sword, it has an umbrella on top, it picks up cheese, it cleans your teeth, IT CONTAINS MULTITUDES. This story took me longer to research than any past Snack Stack post, and I hope you enjoy the results. If you do, please share it!
Toothpicks were probably among the first tools used by humans. Think about that, and think about how little they—toothpicks, not humans—have evolved.
The tools we use to cut things and mash food and make fire and gather water have changed in significant ways over time, but the vast majority of toothpicks we use today are just slightly tweaked versions of the sticks some monkeys use to clean their teeth (and pick their noses). Toothpicks are a $2.2 billion industry today, with more growth expected, but as an everyday object, they’re about as basic as it gets.
So how much of a story could there possibly be here?
Well, my friends. A lot.
One of the fundamental truths/points of this newsletter is that even the most inconsequential-seeming things have a whole universe of stories to tell, and I don’t think that’s ever felt quite as true as it does here.
Settle in. Grab a snack. This gets fun.
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Toothpicks might be simple things, but their form leaves plenty of room for variation, and their small scale means that every tiny tweak makes a difference and means something.
The history of toothpicks has been a surprisingly robust subject for other writers over the years.
The most recent deep-dive was a book called—wait for it—The Toothpick, written in 2008 by engineer and author Henry Petroski (who also wrote The Pencil, same concept). My own favorite of the genre, though, is a book published in 1913. It’s also called The Toothpick, but in the original German, it sounds like the villain in a Grimm fairytale: Der Zahnstocher. The author is one Dr. Hans Sachs and you can read the whole PDF via Google Books, although you’ll have to do quite a bit of cutting and pasting into Google Translate—as I did—if you don’t read German.
Der Zahnstocher contains a lot of illustrations and photos of toothpicks in art and also toothpicks themselves throughout history, the better to show just how essential they’ve been not just for oral hygiene but as a highfalutin design statement across Europe, China, Japan, the USA, and elsewhere. The book is the source of that statue pic seen in the graphic at the top of the post—that guy’s toothpick is more of a wooden stake, but you can see from his contorted expression that it’s getting the job done.
Here are a couple more images from the book, and I do encourage you to click the link above to see the whole magnificent lineup.
You’ll note that some of these implements are ornate—“picks” feels like a lackluster descriptor. Fancy toothpicks were a mark of sophistication in Shakespearean-era Britain, so much so that the Bard of Avon mentioned them in several of his plays, including Much Ado About Nothing, King John All’s Well That Ends Well, and Winter’s Tale. They remained a big deal in life and literature well into the 1800s, making cameos in the likes of Sense and Sensibility (here’s a whole podcast episode about toothpicks in the Regency era; thanks to Stannie Holt for the tip) and Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.
At some point during the nineteenth century, though, there appears to have been a split, as British aristocrats and aristocrat-wannabes shunned the sticks while their counterparts in the USA, Japan, and China, according to Petroski, kept up the trend.
“One can scarcely imagine a habit more ungentlemanly, offensive, and abominable,” proclaimed a columnist in the British publication Food Journal in 1874, going on a long rant that eventually landed on a specific brand of Yankee-hatred:
Some persons in America are particularly addicted to the foul practice of using toothpicks. In fact, not satisfied with the vigorous employment of such weapons during meals, they are said to carry them in their mouth out of the dining-room, and to keep digging at their teeth, or else twirling them between their lips for an indefinite period.
It’s true, though, that toothpicks remained a mark of status and suaveness in the USA throughout the 1800s. Truly genteel types had gold or silver toothpicks attached to their watch chains, but even the wooden ones sent a specific message, particularly after mass production of toothpicks began in Boston in 1826, and the product was suddenly refined in every sense.
As Petroski describe in Slate:
Chewing toothpicks in public soon became fashionable among well-to-do men, and after a while, young women began taking up the practice. One Bostonian observed that at lunchtime “nearly every third woman met in the vicinity of Winter and West streets has a toothpick between her lips.” This ostentatious primary and secondary toothpick usage in the 1870s served to further the general desire for toothpicks.
It was a common observation of the time that many of the young men standing in front of a good hotel chewing toothpicks were suggesting they had eaten in its fine dining room, when in fact they could not afford to do so.
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All of that, I think you’ll agree, is fascinating, especially as a window into the ever-shifting nature of culture. But this is a newsletter about snacks and I was most curious about how toothpicks became accessories for eating food.
Petroski touches on this “usage drift” a bit, in both his Slate piece and his book:
When the toothpick was introduced into France in the late sixteenth century by the Spanish minister Antonio Perez, it became fashionable and was often served stuck into dessert fruits. After being used, the toothpicks were not broken in half but were “either thrown under the table or put behind the ear for decoration.”
Still, the eating angle wasn’t the primary focus for Petroski or any of the other toothpick researchers I found. I’d have to do the work myself.
Here were my two main questions:
Was there a specific time when toothpicks made the jump from one use to the other, in common practice?
What about the fancy toothpicks, the ones with the plastic frills or the cocktail umbrellas? What’s their deal?
We’ll take them in order. Get more snacks and come back.
Please share this with the toothpick obsessive in your life. You know the one.
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We’ve established that the decline of tooth-picking in Britain happened in the mid-1800s. In the USA, that tapering-off took a few more decades, well into the early 1900s, about which more momentarily.
In both places, this shift was probably due to the greater availability of other tools to do the same job: the first mass-produced toothbrush came along in 1780 (invented by a rag merchant while he was in prison; it’s another intriguing tale) and dental floss took off as a product in the mid-1800s (it was originally made of silk threads). It could also just be that times change and every fashion trend eventually fades away, unless we’re talking about Zubaz in Buffalo.
Whatever the case, picking your teeth with a little stick was firmly Not Cool on both sides of the North Atlantic by the 1920s. I found multiple references to this fact throughout that roarin’ decade—celebrations, lamentations, and simple observations that the trend had finally passed.
This paragraph was where it all clicked together for me. It’s from The Greenfield Vidette in Missouri, in 1923:
I had already spent hours pouring through assorted archives when I found that, and it was a real “Eureka!” moment. Here was evidence of one use fading away while another grew, one era yielding to another.
As for the question of why it happened, it connects to something we’ve investigated in other posts, including just a few weeks ago: during the same period, there was a major cultural shift in how people entertained guests in the USA. Having friends over was becoming more of a casual affair, with fewer place settings or hard-and-fast rules about what was proper. Here’s a passage I found from a trend piece on bridal showers published in 1930 (emphasis mine):
A pair of sandwich tongs would be a good gift for the up-to-date married woman who believes in the modern, informal type of entertaining. A set of cocktail picks might also be liked by such smart people.
Toothpicks were still around, and people were used to having them out for guests, in a little cup or some specially designed holders like the ones pictured at the top of this post. So why not put them to work in a different way?
If your cocktail needs olives, you need a pick to hold them and, as various lifestyle journalists of the 1920s noted, you can use the same little skewers to serve tiny sausages, asparagus canapés, or any number of foods you care to serve your fashionable friends. They're functional and fun, the perfect helper for your dinner party. Toothpicks might not have been a socially acceptable tool for cleaning your teeth anymore, but they had become something even better: a sophisticated way to play with your food.
Over the next couple of decades, that stylish use slowly spread to mass-production products, filtering through the culture like a high-fashion cerulean gown inspiring a lumpy blue sweater, except in this case, we’re talking about long-tail developments like Heinz promoting DIY fortunes-on-a-stick to go with meatball appetizers or this product sold across the USA (but, apparently, not in Des Moines, alas) in 1957:
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Of course, to really impress your pals, you’ll want to make your toothpicks themselves to conjure a casually cosmopolitan vibe. This brings us to the second question: What about the fancy toothpicks, the ones with the plastic frills or the paper umbrellas? What’s their deal?
Elaborate toothpicks weren’t entirely new—again, I’ll refer you to the photos above—but in the twentieth century, against the backdrop of modern consumerism and entertaining culture, “fancy” toothpicks took on a mass-produced, disposable form.
There were, for example, the famous Japanese toothpicks with the little top section you can break off to keep the pointy bit off the table. [UPDATE: Apparently the design wasn’t originally made with this function in mind, though many people use them this way. Instead, this form is intended to subtly echo the designs of kokeshi, the traditional dolls. Here’s more on that—and I hate to keep using the word “fascinating” here, but it’s really so fascinating.]
Such thoughtful design here—simple, elegant, functional. The iconic fancy toothpicks of the American experience, on the other hand, are brash and colorful, the Guy Fieris of the tiny-food-skewer world. Frill toothpicks, for example:
The festive plasticky bit on the end is cellophane, which was invented in 1908 (here’s that rabbit hole, if you want to go down it) but appears not to have made its way to toothpick accessory until 1930—again, right as informal entertaining and toothpicks-as-serving-tools were really taking off.
Even so, it wasn’t until 1959 that they became a full-blown trend, one that merited its very own newspaper stories:
And then there’s the cocktail umbrella. It’s not exactly a toothpick, but also … it’s not not a toothpick, right? It has a toothpick. We’ll count it.
Berry recounted an interview between journalist Rick Carroll and Harry Yee, a former head bartender at the Hawaiian Village Hotel, in which Yee claimed to have created a cocktail called the Tapa Punch in 1959 that featured an umbrella garnish.
“He claimed that it was the first ever drink to sport a paper parasol, giving rise to the term ‘umbrella drink,’” says Berry. He adds that “umbrella picks” actually predated Yee’s drink, but isn’t sure of their pre-garnish intent.
“Their original purpose is anyone’s guess. Were they used as a food picks? Something to stick in your hair or straw hat? Some sort of party favor would be my guess,” Berry says.
Now. There are earlier examples of umbrella picks being used in cocktails—the oldest I can find is from 1935—but they genuinely don’t seem to have been a common thing until Yee popularized them with his tiki drinks.
But you’ll note that there’s still a gap here, one that Berry highlights: umbrella picks existed before Yee stuck one in a cocktail. And on this matter, I have some fresh information.
In short, Berry is correct: they were often used as party favors or food garnishes. The many uses I found included:
party favor (New Philadelphia, Ohio, 1940)
decoration for fruit gelatin (Indianapolis, 1956)
festive place-setting accessory, stuck in a gumdrop (Bangor, Maine, 1958)
accompaniment to a small cup of nuts given as a party favor at a bridal shower (Seymour, Indiana, 1958)
Snack Stack is a curiosity-fueled newsletter about the history of snacks and snack-adjacent things. Some recent posts you may have missed:
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My best guess for the existence of umbrella picks in the first place—or at least their popularity—is that they were simply part of postwar Americans’ broader love of all things tiki-adjacent, which went far beyond cocktails, as I discussed in a post on Chinese chicken fingers back in 2021:
After World War II—which further raised American awareness and stereotypes of the Pacific Islands—the Polynesian trend took full flight, with tiki motels and tiki bowling alleys and, all around the contiguous 48 states, over-the-top tiki bars, with their bamboo-and-stuffed-parrots décor and rum-fueled drinks served in ceramic mugs shaped like skulls, pineapples, or scowling, cartoonish versions of the carvings of demigods found across Polynesian islands.
The USA’s tiki moment was one built on exoticism down to the tiniest detail, all of it colorful and tropics-evoking. So it follows that even the toothpicks of the trend would follow suit.
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The intrigue of toothpicks—and this post barely scratches the surface—is that these tiny objects reflect the aesthetic mood, technology, and formality of their specific place and time. For Americans of the postwar era, that translated to improved means for partying.
It’s all a bit ridiculous. But then again, the history of toothpicks has long melded the functional and the fanciful, in a way that takes a basic tool far beyond any monkey sticks. Just ask these fine figures from that old German book I found: