A Beginning and Ending

Black Glasses in an almost 1950's style on top of blue sheets.

Glasses, an everyday item
Photographer ©ES Paynter

How often do you think about the items that pass through your hands every day? A bowl, plastic glasses, your shoes, a bottle of beer? Do you ever wonder when it was first created? When was the exact year it was patented? Did it go out of popularity? Did the company that made it stop making it? When? I’m an archaeologist and unless it’s been pulled out of dirt or has something to do with Twinkies, I still don’t stop to think about these things. Contemplating something in my hands that I use everyday would be like contemplating walking. Unless I’ve had too much to drink, it’s just not necessary.

At this moment, however, the giant timeline of the things humans have created, passed along to others, and recreated is rolling around in my head like the stars circling around this planet. The timeline shouldn’t be a scatter of disconnected dots. At the very least there are constellations to be discovered. Almost everything comes from a technological progression. Each stop along this progression has a beginning date and many an end date.

So now, I am a project laboratory director. My coworkers tell me where people were living. They pass along items associated with an exact location in the ground. Those artifacts then get washed, characterized, archived. I pass back the raw information to help them understand the “what” and “when” associated with that “where” they originally gave me. Such simple words and yet my head is an entire sky full of questions surrounding those words.

Today a fragment of a bone came to the table. It was so polished and burned that some of us were unsure of it actually being bone. After much deliberation and dead end searches, it took the right person in the office with the right type of knowledge who had seen a lot of bone toothbrushes during a dig. He positively identified the small fragment. Suddenly, the item has life, a history. The artifact has a beginning and an end. So now I have to find out, when were bone toothbrushes popular and when did they give way to other materials?

While I always start with a general internet search, the trick is that I need a reliable source. No matter the program, network or paper, television and news are often laden with errors or half truths. Wikipedia is only casually but not officially peer reviewed. The encyclopedia as well as wikipedia are considered tertiary sources that mostly summarize secondary sources. Those are not the citations I need. Even when I do find a reliable source, not all of them agree. Often the further back in time the object of study, the less agreement. And answers lead to more questions.

It is important to note that an object by itself is worth little to the archaeological record. While it begins with the identification of one object, where it was found and with what it was found is vital. Even the depth within the soil gives us information. The assemblage of objects provides endless research potential instead of crucially limiting it. A topic worthy of it’s own post. First things first, I must focus on the toothbrush.

Long before the advent of the “toothbrush” there were other ways people cleaned their teeth. My investigation is for the bone handled kind. I’m taking a guess that I can narrow my terms. The Chinese seem to be attributed with inventing the handled bristle toothbrush. Once the English visited China, they began to import the Chinese toothbrush along with many other items such as porcelain tablewares. The English eventually began to manufacture their own.

The table below includes different items, their origin, if those items were used in the US mid-atlantic, a date range of manufacture, if I can officially cite the source, and the link to where I found the information.

I use a pencil in this complex game of connect the dots because I need the eraser.

In the following table, Terminus Post Quem (TPQ) is “limit after which” i.e. start and Terminus Ante Quem (TAQ) is “limit before which” i.e. end. Common Era (CE) is sometimes used instead of AD and Before Common Era (BCE) instead of BC. Before Present (BP) sets 1950 as the “present”.

If you have any great sources to pass along or a particular area of knowledge, please feel free to contact me. Know anything about the history of the toothbrush? Definitely send me a note.


Item Material Origin Used in Mid-Atlantic Approx TPQ Approx TAQ Reliable Source Citation
Toothbrush Bone and Bristle China Eh? 1600 CE 1950 CE Um, NO http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toothbrush
Toothbrush Bone Handle England Possibly 1780 CE 1950 CE? 1938? b/c of nylon toothbrushes HA, NO http://users.forthnet.gr/ath/abyss/History-of-the-Toothbrush.htm
Various material goods Bakelite, First plastic United States Yes 1909 CE present day Definitely http://patimg1.uspto.gov/.piw?Docid=942699&idkey=NONE
Various material Goods Commercial Plastics, non Bakelite   Yes 1920 CE present day Close http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1526/1973.full
Sunglasses/snow googles Bone, leather, wood Arctic NO, but it’s so interesting 1 CE? 1600 CE? Not at all http://www.canadacool.com/COOLFACTS/QUEBEC/Gatineau-OttawaSunglasses.html
Shoes Sage Bark, Woven Oregon Nope, but aren’t they incredible? 10,500 BP 9,300 BP No http://pages.uoregon.edu/connolly/FRsandals.htm
Vessel, clay pottery, Marcey Creek Ceramic, steatite temper, Prehistoric Mid-Atlantic Yes 1200 BCE 750 BCE Probably http://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/PrehistoricCeramics/Prehistoric%20Ware%20Descriptions/MarceyCreek.htm
Bowl, hand painted, blue shell edged Ceramic, Pearlware, Historic England Yes 1785 CE 1840 CE Yes http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/histarch/gallery_types/type_index_display.asp?type_name=PEARLWARE,%20EDGED
Bottle,”Duraglass” in script on base Glass United States Yes 1940 CE 1963 CE Yes http://www.sha.org/bottle/machinemadedating.htm & http://www.sha.org/bottle/pdffiles/OwensIll_BLockhart.pdf