“He’s jist sharpening his teeth”

One of the exciting things about being an archaeologist in Christchurch at the moment is that we’re digging up lots and lots of artefacts. And the more artefacts you dig up, the more chances there are of finding something rare or unusual. Sometimes the rarity relates to the monetary or sentimental value of the artefact, such as the fobwatch we talked about a couple of weeks ago. And sometimes the unusual artefact is something pretty ordinary.

Like a toothbrush.


Bone toothbrush handle found on an archaeological site in Christchurch. This was made by S. Maw, Son & Thompson. Their trademark is impressed on the handle, along with the words “ALPASS LIVERPOOL” (Photo: K. Webb).

This teardrop-shaped bone toothbrush handle was found during archaeological work on an historic hotel site in Christchurch, along with a ceramic toothpaste pot (below) and other personal artefacts. We were pretty excited to find it, since toothbrushes (or even parts of them) aren’t often found on 19th century archaeological sites in New Zealand. Our research suggests that this may be a result of vastly different attitudes towards oral hygiene at this time, not only in New Zealand but throughout the world.


John Gosnell and Co. cherry toothpaste pot and lid found along with the toothbrush. The lid is decorated with a polychrome transfer print that features the image of a young Queen Victoria. More information about Gosnell’s products is available here.

The humble bristle toothbrush originated in China, although ‘toothsticks’ and the like are known to have been used for thousands of years. These earliest bristle toothbrushes weren’t so humble, being made of expensive materials like ivory, gold (imagine!), silver or precious wood. So only the very wealthy could afford them, although there were some cheaper toothbrushes around. In Europe, however, people cleaned their teeth using sticks or rags… Toothbrushes were available in England from at least the 17th century but weren’t common until a certain William Addis was thrown in jail in 1780 for starting a riot. At least, that’s how the story goes. Whatever the truth of the matter, Addis is credited with introducing cheap bone-handled toothbrushes to England, and no doubt kick-starting a revolution in dental hygiene. Addis’s toothbrushes were typically made from animal bones and the bristles also came from animals. Badger bristles were apparently the most expensive but pig bristles were more common.

Pages from Maw and Sons Book of Illustrations to S. Maw & Son’s Quarterly Price-Current.

We know that from c.1850 on many toothbrushes were imprinted with trademarks, slogans or details of the manufacturer and our toothbrush is no exception. It’s stamped with the mark of S. Maw, Son & Thompson (see photo above). From this, we know that the toothbrush was made between 1870 and 1901, when this firm was in operation.

The Maw firm was the largest pharmaceutical wholesaler in Britain and was actually a distributor of toothbrushes, not a manufacturer (i.e. a middleman). From 1870-1901, they sold toothbrushes made by William Addis & Son Brushworks, the company founded by William Addis almost a century earlier and continued by his son. The words “ALPASS LIVERPOOL” were also stamped on the handle and probably indicate the place of manufacture: Alpass Road in Liverpool, England. The number ’29’ stamped below the head indicates the manufacturer’s model number.

So why are toothbrushes – and toothpaste pots – so rare on 19th century archaeological sites in New Zealand, given that they’re such everyday items today (not to mention items that are thrown out pretty regularly)? Lots of chemists and druggists in New Zealand were advertising toothbrushes for sale, so they were definitely available.

We think that the rarity reflects a lack of awareness of the importance of dental hygiene, and possibly also that a rag – which would always be readily available and would cost nothing – would do the job just fine, thanks. And dentists in the 19th century had a pretty fearsome reputation, so anything to do with dental hygiene may have been a little suspect. But there might have been some other factors too, including the cost of toothbrushes.

So who used our toothbrush? It could have been the proprietor of the hotel, or a guest. If it was the proprietor, however, we might have found more toothbrushes, given that probably even 19th century toothbrushes needed to be replaced regularly. Our guess, then, is that it was used by a guest. We don’t know for certain that the same guest left the toothpaste pot behind, but it seems reasonably likely, given the rarity of both artefacts in 19th century archaeological sites in New Zealand. And who knows, maybe a hotel servant who chanced to see this guest brushing their teeth thought the guest was in fact sharpening his teeth.

Kirsa Webb

  • Mattick, B., 2010. A Guide to Bone Toothbrushes of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Barbara E. Mattick, USA, available from Xlibris Corporation.
  • Maw, S & Son, 1869. Book of Illustrations to S. Maw & Son’s Quarterly Price-Current. Butler & Tanner, London. Available at: http://archive.org/details/bookofillustrati00mawsuoft.
  • Press, 18 February 1874, page 3.
  • Taranaki Herald, 1 November 1880, page 4.