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William Addis, inventor of the toothbrush

They are called Eureka moments, as chance and inspiration combine to create something great. Archimedes, the man whose overflowing bath led to his principle for discerning the volume of objects must top the list of course. And Einstein has to be right up there. Observing the clock tower in Bern, the German genius suddenly realised that time could move at different speeds in different places, and thus relativity was born.

But, with no disrespect to the scientists, East Ender William Addis’s invention probably tops them all. For the simple device he developed is not only used by every one of us, twice a day, it has prevented pain, illness, misery and early death. Addis was the father of modern oral hygiene and the company he founded is in business to this day. But it came from an unlikely source.

In 1780, the unfortunate Addis was arrested on the streets of Spitalfields and charged with causing a riot. At 46, William was already a successful businessman, a stationer and rag merchant, supplying finished paper to the book trade. The rags he harvested would be pulped down and remade into new sheets of paper – nothing went to waste.

William’s clients, the London booksellers of the 18th century, also sold patent medicines and supplies for pharmacists. It seems curious today, but is maybe no odder than barbers also being surgeons or American pharmacies also being ‘soda fountains’. Or, for that matter, modern London bookstores also doubling as coffee shops.

As he languished in his Newgate gaol cell, William struggled to clean his teeth with the traditional combination of a rag with salt and soot. If only he could get in between the teeth, he could do a much better job. Spying a broom, Addis got an idea. He picked a small animal bone from his plate and drilled small holes in it, pestered a guard to get him some bristles and – eureka – the toothbrush was born.

Timing is all of course, and this was an idea happening at just the right moment. Refined sugar, unknown in London in medieval times, was now being consumed in industrial quantities as supplies came back from the West Indies. Georgian Londoners had rotten teeth but effective dental repairs were a century away, with the only option painful extraction (by those barber surgeons again). Addis, however, added prevention to the mix.

Back at liberty, the entrepreneurial William realised that his new ‘tooth brush’ could be a winner. He produced a small number of the products, fashioned from animal bone and horsehair and offered them to his contacts in the book trade. They quickly sold and soon a toothbrush became a fashionable thing to have in Georgian London.

It was a hard thing to patent, and other manufacturers soon copied William’s bright idea, but it didn’t stop the company growing, and William growing rich. By 1840, the company was run by his son (also called William). Rather than a central ‘manufactory’, the Addis company used a system that was widespread in the East End of the time, piecework, with the women of Spitalfields and Whitechapel producing the brushes in their own homes. The system was also the basis for the matchmaking business, weaving, laundry and many more trades. The women would be paid by how much they produced, invariably having to buy their own tools and materials up front. And if the goods weren’t up to scratch – the company wouldn’t pay.

A brutal system in the days before unions and the legal protection they afforded workers – but the Addises grew very wealthy. By 1840, William Jr was employing 60 workers in an increasingly sophisticated production involving 53 separate processes, and producing four different models: Gents, Ladies, Child’s and Tom Thumb. William would use badger hair for the poshest brushes, but imported hog, pig or boar hair for the rest, mostly from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and France.

Most of us wouldn’t fancy brushing our teeth with a mixture of bone and hair, but an American invention was to change everything. On 28 February 1935, and after dozens of failed experiments, Wallace Hume Carothers, the head of organic chemistry at DuPont in Delaware, came up with the molten polymer the company would market as Nylon. Carothers, tragically, would kill himself a couple of years later, wracked by depression and convinced his work was useless.

But the Addis company, now marketing its wares as Wisdom Toothbrushes, was quick to see the potential of nylon. Agreeing a deal with the UK licensee, ICI, they produced the first synthetic brushes and launched a huge newspaper campaign. The new brush was more expensive than the competition at 2 shillings (10p) but the timing was perfect. It was 1940 and British housewives were being told to waste nothing – animal bones were going into soups and stews or simply being boiled off by butchers and slaughterhouses, their marrow making nutritious stock. A shortage of bone thus worked in the favour of the Addises and their new nylon brushes.

By the 1960s, Wisdom had moved out to Suffolk and a new factory, and the last Addis left the firm in 1996, bringing more than 200 years of history to a close. But the legacy is clear – a product as ubiquitous and essential as any, the toothbrush is repeatedly voted the one object Britons could not live without. For William Addis, his unfortunate incarceration in a London prison was not just the happy accident that made his fortune, it was one that changed the world.

One comment on “William Addis, inventor of the toothbrush

  1. diane timmins says:

    Hello,

    Please could you advice me where I would find the three images that was used in the William Addis write up on teeth.

    Many Thanks

    Diane

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