Harmon’s Histories: Capt. Mullan’s toothbrush, and other gritty tales from Montana history

Jim Harmon

This started out innocently enough. I was just curious about what life was like in the early days of Montana.

For instance, did territorial Montanans have good oral hygiene habits? More specifically, did they brush and floss daily?

Perhaps my upcoming dental appointment contributed to these ruminations – I can’t be sure.

There is some evidence that the practice of flossing between one’s teeth may go back to prehistoric times. Teeth cleaning has been traced back as far as 3000 BCE, when twigs served as the first toothpick. It would actually help if a leaf or two were still attached.

The forerunner of modern dental floss is credited to Dr. Levi Spear Parmly, a New Orleans dentist, in 1815.

Today’s toothbrush design has its roots (pun intended) in China around 1400 CE, although the “modern” toothbrush is credited to an Englishman by the name of William Addis.

He carved a handle from bone and used swine hair for bristles, circa 1780.

Sounds delightful.

One of the earliest references to toothbrushes in Montana was the story of Captain Mullan placing his cleaning device in the fork of a tree as he traveled along the Fort Benton road en route to Fort Walla Walla in 1862. He forgot it, and there it remained for nearly 30 years.

When it was found in 1890, the Missoula Weekly Gazette reported, “Under the toothbrush was a piece of paper containing the captain’s signature well preserved (with) the name of Mullan plainly discernible.”

The Bozeman Avant Courier offered its readers advice in 1874 “to beautify the teeth.” A little borax dissolved in water with a bit of camphor spirit “applied with a soft brush preserves and beautifies the teeth, extirpates tartarous adhesion, arrests decay (and) makes teeth pearly white.”

Around the same time, the warden of the state penitentiary thought it would be a good idea to supply each prisoner with a toothbrush.

As reported by the Helena Weekly Herald, “Mr. Adriance (the warden), believing that ‘cleanliness was next to Godliness,’ purchased a tooth-brush for each of the convicts, the cost amounting to (two dollars).

“The voucher was sent to the Governor for his approval, but that dignitary returned it with the following endorsement: ‘I consider this item an extravagant and useless expenditure. If the hotels in Montana can get along with one tooth-brush, I don’t see why the Territorial Penitentiary can’t do the same!’”

Even when toothbrushes were available, getting people to brush has always been a problem.

In 1895, The Anaconda Standard reprinted an article from the New York Tribune, indicating the majority of people who were otherwise clean and neat had “filthy” mouths.

“A dentist whose practice has been for many years largely among persons who would commonly be called of a “refined and cultured class” is reported as finding the neglect of cleanliness among the children of such persons most astonishing.

“He states that the children were being trained in all the arts and sciences, yet in one school where there were 700 pupils, 500 of them from 10 to 18 years of age, only 15 of them cleaned their teeth twice a day.”

Flash forward to today. Dental professionals recommend brushing and flossing multiple times a day and even the federal government’s dietary guidelines have contained advice on the subject.

So what happened a couple of years ago was rather astounding.

Associated Press writer Jeff Donn, given a tip by an orthodontist that there was actually “no solid evidence that flossing actually works,” began digging. The Department of Health and Human Services was not forthcoming with any documents to support its recommendation, so he filed an FOIA request.

Finally, HHS admitted it could find “that floss had never been researched by the committees that review science for the guidelines.”

The recommendation was quietly dropped.

Despite that, the journalist says he still flosses as an effective way of removing “annoying bits of food stuck in my teeth.”

As for me, I’m stuck with the dental appointment. And, my wife and my dental hygienist still insist that I floss between the old grinders – the lack of science behind their insistence notwithstanding.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.