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the toothpick

3 april 2013

Everyone has a box of toothpicks somewhere in their home, as Henry Petroski notes in his study of the useful little things. I remembered a box that has been in our kitchen drawer for a while, probably moved there from some other kitchen drawer in some previous home. After reading The Toothpick, I got it out. Reading the label offers an experience much like one Petroski describes (342-43). These little guys are "Diamond ELEGANCE TOOTHPICKS," © 2005 by Jarden Home Brands of Muncie, IN, though of course Made in China, like everything else in our century. There were alleged to be 250 of them in the clear plastic box to start with, and I reckon there are about 225 left (though I'm no Dustin Hoffman when it comes to counting toothpicks). They're uneven in color and somewhat friable, but the design is nice: they're single-pointed round picks of the kind you see more and more nowadays, with two grooves near the blunt end as if they'd been turned on a Lilliputian lathe. Petroski explains that the grooves have a function as well as a form:

The laws of mechanics dictate that when bent it will break at the groove more remote from the blunt end. The broken toothpick not only signals that it has been used, but the shorter, broken-off piece provides a small clean part that may "serve as a rest for the pointed end after use," so that what had been in the diner's mouth does not touch the common table. In this regard, the severed toothpick end plays much the same role as does a rest for a dinner knife or pair of chopsticks. (250)
And there you have Henry Petroski's literary genius in half a paragraph: the ability to make something you've dug out of the back of a kitchen drawer become alive in its social and technological implications.

I count Petroski as one of the greatest American non-fiction writers, though I admit I have read far too few of his many books. I first encountered his writing in the intriguingly-titled Evolution of Useful Things, and followed it into The Pencil and The Book on the Bookshelf. (Most of his books are collections of shorter pieces; pencils, bookshelves, and toothpicks are his epic works.) I've also been lucky enough to hear Petroski lecture on one of his favorite subjects, why some bridges fall down. I can't say I wait outside the bookstore like a Harry Potter fan to buy the newest Petroski ‐ in fact, I'll confess to buying The Toothpick at the thrift store for $1.91. But given world enough and time, I want to keep reading him till I run out, and then start over.

Toothpick manufacture did not originate in China, though toothpicks themselves are presumably prehistoric, as popular with Peking Man as any other hominid. For about all of human existence, one picked one's teeth with whatever came to hand, or whittled a purpose-built toothpick out of anything suitable. Antique toothpicks, says Petroski, tend to be of precious metals, but clearly most people made do with slivers of wood instead; slivers simply don't last the way aristocrats' gold and silver do. The first commercial, disposable toothpicks were lovely (and large) shafts of orangewood, hand-carved by Portuguese artisans.

Mass-produced toothpicks, the story goes, were the idea of a New Englander named Charles Forster, who spent some time in Brazil among toothpick carvers, and figured with typical Yankee ingenuity that a fellow could devise a machine to make a million of them in the time it took a Brazilian to whittle ten or twelve. (They wouldn't be as good, but they wouldn't be as expensive, either: a recurrent theme in Petroski's histories of technology.) Forster didn't invent the toothpick machine – Forster didn't invent much of anything outside of marketing strategies that may be as apocryphal as his Brazilian epiphany – but he enlisted the help of many inventors over the second half of the 19th century in turning mountains of birchwood into billions of toothpicks.

Among Forster's marketing ideas was that of sending shills into dime stores to ask for toothpicks, and then sending toothpick salesmen in their wake. The shills would come back and buy boxes of toothpicks, which were then sold by the salesmen to the next marks. I suppose such bootstrap market-building has worked now and then over the decades in many an industry. But it seems particularly appropriate to toothpicks. The existence of a marketable toothpick seems to defy some deep-seated common principle of value. How can you make any money selling something that has virtually no individual worth, that's given away for free, that's quickly thrown away (frequently before use, like the Diamond ELEGANCEs I've just been fiddling with and breaking)?

Making money in the toothpick trade would seem to be a real-life example of the Sorites Paradox: one toothpick ain't much, and ten toothpicks ain't much more, but you get into the hundreds and you can charge someone a few cents for them, and into the billions and you've made a fortune. But it's really hard to get the human mind around the idea that there could be a profit in selling toothpicks. It seems to us mandatory that there be some kind of trickery involved.

But people really do need toothpicks, if not to pick their teeth then to hold their sandwiches together and to test their banana bread. Petroski leads the reader through copious patent applications that show how people have striven to develop better toothpicks and better machines to make them with. There have been few great innovations, though, and today's "flat toothpick is, unfortunately, an example of technological degeneration" (338). Forster (or rather, inventor Benjamin Sturtevant) pioneered the flat toothpick after the Civil War, stamping them out of ingeniously beveled strips of birch veneer. But 21st-century flats are no longer beveled, and frankly no longer much good anywhere near your teeth, though they're fine if you're applying glue to airplane models, or for that matter if you're building models of airplanes out of the toothpicks themselves. And rather than provide good factory jobs for backwoods Maine communities, today's toothpicks are just one more driving force in the huge movement of Chinese workers from the countryside to vast new manufacturing cities.

Forster's real gem was the round toothpick: punched from veneer but then compressed and polished to a true, not merely capitalized, elegance. Instead of trying to patent machinery, Forster patented the round toothpick itself, using one of the simplest patent drawings imaginable (and one of the easiest to imagine, though Petroski reproduces it: two barely-concave lines, touching at their endpoints).

Beautiful round toothpicks may still exist, but the ones I found last week at a Georgia bed-and-breakfast were examples of their inelegant successor: the "flat round" hybrid pick. You've seen them: small matchstick-like things, that, as Petroski notes, look like they've had both ends fed into pencil sharpeners. These were splintery things (made in China, I have to say), and were dyed festive colors – to look nice in sandwiches, yes, but also to disguise the fact that the wood involved was distinctly fourth-rate. Like all things, the toothpick had its rise, its heyday, and its fall. And in Henry Petroski, it has found its chronicler.

Petroski, Henry. The Toothpick: Technology and culture. New York: Knopf [Random House], 2007.