Looking for an innovative dental hygiene enthusiast to thank next time you polish your pearly whites? Turns out it’s not that simple. People have been cleaning their teeth for millennia, starting with the ancient Egyptians, who are thought to have scrubbed their choppers with a special powder made from ox hooves and eggshells as far back as 5000 B.C. The Romans opted for sticks with frayed ends, while the Greeks used rough cloths. About 800 years ago, the Chinese began fashioning proto-toothbrushes by attaching coarse animal hairs to bamboo or ivory handles; during the Middle Ages, travelers brought these devices to Europe.
Fast-forward to the late 18th century, when an Englishman named William Addis landed in jail for inciting a riot. To while away the time—and freshen up in the process—he carved a bone handle, drilled holes into it and inserted boar bristles that were held in place by wire. Addis starting mass-producing his contraption after leaving prison and died a wealthy man. In 1938 the DuPont company developed the first toothbrush with nylon fibers, which proved sturdier and more efficient than animal hairs. But in the United States, at least, it wasn’t until soldiers returned home from World War II indoctrinated with military hygiene habits that brushing one’s teeth regularly became a widespread practice.