Days Gone By - stories from the past

Can you believe there were actually tooth brush drills in school in 1919? [see vintage pics]

{I’ve often wondered why people seemed to be so serious and not smiling in old photographs, then one day I realized that it may have something to do with the fact that they were probably missing teeth. In the past, I imagine when a tooth was decayed the only alternative was to pull it}

Tooth-brushing not a habit until after WWII

The first American toothbrush hit the market around 1885, but the practice of brushing teeth did not become widespread until after the Second World War, when US soldiers continued the toothbrushing that had been required during their military service.

Although tooth brushing was practiced since ancient Egyptian days, it was not a regular habit.

Schools had drills to teach children how to brush their teeth.

In the 1920s, toothbrush drills were actually included as part of the curriculum in schools as evidenced by photographs and the transcribed instructions for students and teachers below:

{Transcribed from Educational Foundations, Volume 31 1920 By Matthew Carney, D. M. D. Dr. Carney Supervising Dentist of the Department of Health, Free. Dental Clinics for School Children of New York City}

Uncle Sam kept his soldiers well supplied with bullets, and bayonets and clothes, so as to have his first line of defense, the soldiers in the trenches in France, well equipped and ready to repel their deadly enemies.

Now each of you purchase equipment for your first line of defense, your little white armor coated soldiers, your teeth, by getting a toothbrush, some tooth paste and some dental floss.

Uncle Sam purchased all necessary equipment but he had to show his soldiers how to use these tools so that they could produce results—so that they could rout the enemy before the enemy could injure them.

Now I will tell you how to use your equipment so that you can be drill master and kill your deadly enemy, Disease, without injuring yourselves, or your little soldiers, your teeth.

Uncle Sam drills soldiers. One of the soldiers’ drills was a toothbrush drill, just like yours. Be a good Captain and do not let your little white soldiers forget their toothbrush drill.

Every year the dentists of the United States hold a meeting. This is known as the Annual Convention of the National Dental Association. Each year there is some important subject to decide, and only last October the dentists decided the best way to brush the teeth at their annual meeting in New Orleans.

Think of it. I am now going to tell you without charge, the method of brushing the teeth that has been decided upon by the leading dentists of the country. It is the safest and surest way to have “Clean teeth, good health, long life.” This method is called “The Rolling Stroke Method.”

Toothbrush Drill May 19, 1919 Fairfield, Alabama (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

White toothbrush drills fairfield, Alabama

Authorized Equipment

First—a brush of suitable design and not longer than one and a half inches in the brush head:

Second—a good dentifrice.

Third—waxed silk flat dental floss.

The brush is now taken in the right hand and the bristles are wet by putting the brush under the faucet of running water or dipping it into a glass of water. The tooth paste is now applied directly to the moistened brush and you are ready to clean the teeth and mouth.

Tooth brush drill at Franklin School, Chicago 1900Toothbrush drill franklin school

Now let us start on the upper jaw on the left side. The brush is placed in the mouth between the cheek and teeth with the bristles pointing upward. It is pushed as far back as it will go and then the handle is twisted so as to roll the brush. The bristles sweep down over the edge of the gum and the crowns of the teeth and brush all the decayed food into the open mouth where it can be rinsed out. This sweeping down must be done about ten times in each section of the mouth, and must always be in the same direction, not up and down.

  1. Next start sweeping out at the cuspid region, or the corner of the mouth, using the same motion in the same way.
  2. Then the central section, being sure to clean the brush and apply fresh paste wherever it is needed.
  3. Then the cuspid region on the right side.
  4. The molar region on the right side.

The outside surfaces of the upper teeth are now clean.

  1. The brush is now washed, fresh dentifrice is applied, and the inner surfaces are cleaned as follows:
  2. Take the brush, bristles up, and sweep down from the roof of the mouth toward the edges of the teeth, doing first the left side and then the right side.
  3. Now wash the brush, and brush the inner surfaces of the upper teeth by placing the bristles pointing upward and pulling the brush forward.
  4. The grinding surfaces are now brushed with a forward and backward and a side to side motion so as to clean out all the little ridges in them.
  5. Now the upper set has been cleaned. You should rinse the mouth, wash the brush and prepare to clean the lowers.

Clean Lower Set

The same motion is used, only in the reverse. The brush is placed in the mouth with the bristles pointing downward, between the cheek and the teeth and is then rolled so that the bristles sweep upward, passing over the edge of the gum and the grooves of the teeth and brushing the food particles from between the teeth and around the gum margins into the open mouth. The lower jaw is divided into five sections, the same as the upper, and the operation performed in the same eight stages.

The mouth should be thoroughly rinsed after brushing and whenever possible, particularly with the older children. The use of dental floss between the teeth is strongly advised.

Here is an excerpt of a Toothbrush drill with instructions for the teacher by Margaret Shaw

Call two pupils and have them stand directly before you, in a position that will allow room for the rest to take their places. Have them repeat after you:

“We are the first little teeth that come. We are called the lower central incisors. Our work is to cut food” (the gesture of chopping with the edge of the right hand against the palm of the left may be carried out. If desired each child may be required to continue its original gesture slowly or in time to soft music while the rest are gathering and making their reports).

Call up two more and place them as the base of a second semi-circle, (representing the upper set) and cause them to repeat:

“We belong in the upper set. We are the next to come and our work also is to cut the food. We are the upper central incisors.” (gesture of cutting, etc.)

Call up four more pupils, one for each end of both lines, who say:

“We have come to help our little friends, and we are cutters too. (gesture) We are the lateral incisors.”

Call up eight more children. Place two to the right and two to the left on each semi-circle and have them repeat after you:

“We are the next teeth that grow and we are grinders. Our work is to crush the food to make it soft. There are two of us on each side of each jaw. We are called molars because we work like mills” (gesture of grinding by revolving one hand against the other).

Call up four more children placing one at each end of each semi-circle and cause them to repeat after you:

“It is our turn to help. We are sharp teeth and we are named after the pointed ends of the new moon. We are railed cuspids. We catch and hold things on our sharp points” (Gesture of inserting the index finger of the right hand into the partly closed left hand. There are now twenty pupils in two sets of ten representing the temporary, or “milk” teeth.)

Now have all recite the riddle:

“Twenty white horses

On a red hill,

Now they champ

Now they stamp

Now they stand still.”

keeping time with their gestures and stopping at the final word. With the cessation of gestures comes the end of the drill on the milk teeth and a few words of instruction by the teacher selected from the preceding description will be appropriate at this time, describing the nature of the milk teeth or temporary teeth and pointing out that when children are about six years old they become more active and need more food and must have more teeth to chew the food…..”


  1. Educational Foundations Volume 31, 1920


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  1. Lloyd Wilson

    When I grew up could not afford a tooth brush used a twig from a sweet gum tree made an excellent tooth brush

    1. John H. Allen

      Lloyd, where I’m from, the preferred twig was black gum.

  2. John H. Allen

    Yeah — and I don’t have to go back very far either.

  3. Ed Pitts

    Black gum was what Grannie used.
    None of us had tooth brushes.
    Gum disease was common.

  4. Donald Wheeles

    When I was young it was black gum. I don’t know if sweetgum would have worked as good. It might.

  5. Donald Wheeles

    We used baking soda with our blackgum brushes..

  6. Shannon Hall Jones

    Also, photographs were serious business, and according to research I have done, to smile in photographs was once thought to be foolish.

  7. Jerry McDaniel

    I got my first toothbrush when I was in third grade. A county nurse brought toothbrushes and a small tube of tooth paste (Colgate if my memory is good). She showed us how to brush our teeth and then we had a little red pill that showed the places we missed. My teeth were mostly red!

  8. Kenneth H. Haughton

    I have two missing, prominent in the middle of my smile and am often asked to smile…

  9. Locksley S Stubblefield

    Could be. But in the older pictures, before snapshots, you had to hold still because the shutter stayed open much longer.

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