Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All About Toothpicks.

I have a little diversion from the Christmas fare today for you today. I am going to tell you almost everything you ever wanted to know about toothpicks, but never thought to ask.

The toothpick: a small article for personal post-prandial use. Plus of course the occasional kitchen function of skewering small pieces of cheese and multicoloured cocktail onions to an orange or keeping bacon wrapped around prunes at retro buffet parties. An item that may cause etiquette angst perhaps (in public or not? at the table or not? during the meal or not? discreetly behind the hand or not?), but on the whole is an inconsequential, trivial, disposeable item of personal oral hygiene.

Or is there more to the toothpick than there appears at first glance?

Once upon a time the simple toothpick was a veritable symbol of one’s wordliness and wealth. Of course, I am not talking of a cheap splintery wooden or nasty non-biodegradeable plastic toothpick here, I am talking of the fine elegant variety that used to be.

The first recorded mention of a toothpick, according to the OED, is from 1488, and refers to ‘twa tuthpikis of gold’. Gold toothpicks. Naturally then, a toothpick was a symbol of wealth. This little extract from the Encyclop√¶dia of Antiquities, by Thomas Dudley Fosbroke (1825) tells us more:

“The tooth-pick is the Anglo-Saxon toth-gare. To pick the teeth was, in the time of Elizabeth, the mark of a man affecting foreign fashions. In a ludicrous order in Nichols's Progresses we find it said, " Item, no knight of this order shall be armed for the safeguard of his countenance with a pike in his mouth, in the nature of a tooth-pick." Nares says, that it was a fashion imported by travellers from Italy and France, and that using it in publick was deemed a mark of gentility. The tooth-picks were not only carried in cases, but sometimes worn in the hat. Magnetick tooth-picks were made at the end of the seventeenth century.”

So, the toothpick was a symbol of gentility as well as wealth.

I am intrigued by the idea of magnetic toothpicks. Why? To more easily remove metallic fragments from between the teeth? To conveniently stick to your metal cigar case? They are mentioned again in a lovely informative book called Things Not Generally Known, Familiarly Explained, by John Timbs et al (1867), in the chapter Olden Meals and Housewifery:

“The employment of Tooth-picks is very ancient. In the 12th volume of Mr. Grote's able History of Greece, p. 608, we find that Agathocles, " among the worst of Greeks," was poisoned by means of a medicated quill, handed to him for cleaning his teeth after dinner. Mr. Grote's authority is Diodorus, xxi. Fragm. 12, pp. 276-278.
Tooth-picks were in common use in the time of the Caesars. Martial tells us those made of a chip of mastic wood (lentiscus) are the best; but that if you run short of such timber, a quill will serve your purpose; and he ridicules an old fop, who was in the habit of digging away at his gums with his polished lentiscus, though he he’d not a tooth left in his head.
Tooth-picks occur early of silver; but pieces of wood, or of feathers with a red end (as quills in our day), were most usual. The tooth-pick is the Anglo-Saxon toth-gare.
The old name was Pick-tooth: it was imported by travellers from Italy and France, and the using of it was long deemed an affected mark of gentility. It was worn as a trophy in the hat; and Sir Thomas Overbury describes a courtier, the pink of fashion, " with a pick-tooth in his hat." Bishop Earle says of an idle gallant, "his pick-tooth bears a great part in his discourse." Magnetic tooth-picks were made at the end of the seventeenth century.”

A toothpick was considered ‘the distinguished mark of a traveller’ as early as 1600. Ben Jonson in his satirical play Cynthia’s Revels defines a traveller as ‘ … one so made out of the mixture and shreds of forms, that himself is truly deformed. He walks most commonly with a clove or a toothpick in his mouth.’

One might carry around one’s toothpick, and use it publicly, but one had to be elegant too. Here is some advice, from Practical Morality; Or, A Guide to Men and Manners (1831)

‘When the table is cleared, to carry ahout your toothpick in your mouth, like a bird going to build his nest, or to stick it hehind your ear, as a barber does his comb, is no very genteel custom.’

Finally, the Dark Side of the story. The simple little toothpick has also been used as a murder instrument, if we are to believe the story of Agathocles, King of Sicily. He died in 289 BCE, aged 72 years, some say at the instigation of his ambitious grandson who persuaded a once-faithful servant to give his maser a poisoned toothpick. The gruesome variation of the tale says that the poison made the King’s mouth gangrenous, making him unable to speak - for which reason he was burned alive on a funeral pyre.

Poisoned versions aside, there is something about the idea of individual enduring toothpicks that intrigues. Do we have a last minute gift-idea here for the idle gallant / distinguished traveller / person who has everything in your life? A toothpick case with gold or silver toothpicks? A metallic hatband with toothpick? Shall we see designer toothpicks on the market soon? Toothpicks with corporate logos? Modern folk like us would probably insist on some self-sterilising system incorporated in the design of the case, but this should not be a challenge for engineers of all things tiny, should it?

Today’s recipe will not precipitate toothpick- anxiety. No shreds or seeds to stick between the teeth. A nice variation on egg-nog for you, from the Dictionary of obsolete and provincial English by Thomas Wright (1857)

A drink made with the yolks of twelve eggs, a quart of strong home-brewed beer, a bottle of white wine, half a pint of gin, a grated nutmeg, the juice from the peel of a lemon, a small quantity of cinnamon, and sugar sufficient to sweeten it.

Quotation for the Day …

Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it 'white'."
Bing Crosby


Liz + Louka said...

What a fascinating subject! Have you read Jane Austen's account of a fop choosing a toothpick-case at the jewellers, in Sense and Sensibility?

Anonymous said...

For some reason, I think using toothpicks is rather crass! But that's just me, I guess.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Janet!


Anonymous said...

Oh yes, definitely gilt toothpickies for Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Why does the rum-fustian have no rum?

The Old Foodie said...

nbmandel: a good question. The OED gives no definition of rum-fustian, but says "refer to quotes", which say:

1829 HONE Year Bk. 62 Rum fustian is a ‘night cap’, made precisely in the same way [as egg-flip]. 1862 JERRY THOMAS How to mix Drinks (New York) 72 Rumfustian,..a drink very much in vogue with English sportsmen, after their return from a day's shooting. 1900 A. M. EARLE Stage-Coach & Tavern Days v. 101 Rumfustian was made of a quart of strong beer, a bottle of wine or sherry, half a pint of gin, the yolk of twelve eggs, orange peel, nutmeg, spices, and sugar.

Which of course begs the question in a big way, doesnt it?

~~louise~~ said...

Great post Janet! I hope you don't mind if I "borrow" the link and add it to my Toothpick Day post.

Thank you so much for sharing this fascinating information. I'm going to be out of town for a few days so...

Merry Christmas, Happy Birthday (a bit early) & Happy New Year!

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Louise. Go right ahead and link. Fun topic, isnt it?