In 1889, the Windsor and Richmond Gazette in New South Wales reproduced an article from Harper’s Bazaar titled ”Toothpicks and Toothpicking”. The article advised its readers to avoid toothpicks made from gold or silver, as they could scratch the enamel of the teeth. Ivory was pronounced unsanitary, but wooden toothpicks or quills that were used once and discarded were both hygienic and convenient.
The etiquette for using a toothpick was all-important. The writer proclaimed that at “some of the best tables in Europe” diners picked their teeth without ostentation.
“…they did use them, certainly; but when doing so they did not hoist the white flag to call the attention of the whole operation as those do who try to hide their faces behind their napkin. There [sic] manoeuvre, so common among the Americans, is at best false prudery worthy only of the intelligence of an ostrich…Such picking of teeth as is necessary for comfort may be done at table without any clumsy holding of one hand before the mouth which is almost as ostentatious as the white flag signal, and, above all, without any scraping, smacking or sucking noises. The essence of good table manners lies in not making yourself remarked and in not making yourself in any way disagreeable to your neighbours.”
Toothpicks have a long history. Bronze toothpicks have been found in prehistoric graves, while examples made of wood or precious metals were common in ancient Greece and Rome. An article in the Dungog Chronicle in 1909 relates that Greek warrior and self-styled King of Sicily, Agathoclese, was poisoned by a quill handed to him for cleaning his teeth after dinner. Shakespeare makes several references to them and in 16th and early 17th century England, using a “pick-tooth” was seen as an affected mark of gentility. Gentlemen even wore them as ornaments on their hats.
By the late 19th century, the disposable wooden toothpick was the norm. Most of them were made in America, and most of those were made in the state of Maine. Charles Forster apparently got the idea on a trip to South America and began to make them using “the choicest part of the white birch log”. By 1887, according to America’s National Toothpick Association, Maine was producing 5,000,000 of the little sticks each year. By the mid-1920s, annual production in the USA was thirty billion, and they were already being used in restaurants and home kitchens to hold foods together and to anchor that essential olive in cocktails.
During World War II, the United States Department of Commerce called a conference to standardise the size of toothpicks “as an economy measure in view of the unlimited emergency”. The flat type was standardised at 2.375 inches and the round type at two inches. By this time, cocktail teasers – the ubiquitous cubes of cheese speared on a stick with a cocktail onion – had already made an appearance. In the 1950s, the trick of serving the savouries bristling from a cucumber, apple, orange or grapefruit had become de rigueur on every suburban buffet table.