Saturday, May 16, 2009

The humble toothpick

In a Sad Sack cartoon, the Sarge would order Sad Sack, early one morning, to cut down a tree. “Smaller” he would bark after some time. “Smaller still”, he would howl, as Sack kept chopping furiously. “Even smaller” he would cry out, not satisfied with the size of the wood pieces. As the sun was about to set, Sarge would select one of the small pieces, pick his tooth, and walk away.

The humble toothpick, now ubiquitous, was actually a creation of a marketing genius- Charles Forster. Before he conceived the idea, people used any sharp piece of wood or twig (as Sarge did) to clear the debris in their teeth and managed to get along quite well.

In a Slate article (Oct 07), Henry Petroski tells the story of the toothpick and how Charles Forster single-handedly created the market for this novel product. It was sold for its utility value, but soon acquired the status of a ‘fashion accessory”. Later, consumers found other uses for it (cheese and pineapple sticks with the cocktail, etc) and the market grew further. Today, you find it by the hundreds on every table in every restaurant. qtzgfhiu

Petroski has written an entire book on the toothpick. He has also delved deeper into other every-day artifacts such as fork, pencil, etc and written some fascinating stuff.

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