How People Used to Brush Their Teeth

My life in appalachia - Toothbrushes

Most everyone used twig toothbrushes when I was a child. They’d get a small stick from a blackgum tree about as big as a pencil and use that. As you chewed on the end, the wood softened like a brush but didn’t fall apart. If you tried to use a Birch twig it would just come apart on you. Out on the porch there’d always be a bucket of water and a wash pan to wash your hands and face in. Usually there’d be 2 or 3 blackgum twig toothbrushes laying out there too. If you were really interested in cleaning your teeth you’d use baking sodie or salt with the brush. People who dipped snuff would keep a stick brush in their pocket along with their snuff. They’d use it to tamp down the snuff in their mouth or to brush off their teeth after they got through with a dip. And a few people would wet their brush good and dip it in the snuff and just stick the whole thing in their jaw instead of packing the snuff down in their lip or jaw.



Your picture of the toothbrush reminded me of one of my first memories. We lived with my maternal grandparents until I was about 4 and my great grandmother also lived there. She was bedridden and everyday she would ask one of us to go out to the blackgum tree and bring her a “toothbrush”. We would chew it up real good on the end so that she could clean her teeth. Not very sanitary by todays standards, but it worked well back then.

~Mary Berrong


Mitchell tells me he used a birch toothbrush when he was a kid-right up until one of his oldest brothers got out of the service. One of the newfangled presents he brought home was a shiny new tooth brush & tooth powder. Zeb took Mitchell down to the creek for a memorable lesson in dental hygiene. To this day he has a very grateful little brother!

Suzi Phillips


Tipper, my mawmaw would dip snuff in her middle years and I remember her cutting a twig from the Sassyfrass Bush which grew right beside the back porch. I thought it was odd that she would “brush” her teeth because she had false teeth. Must have worked because she did it almost everyday. The bush being so close to the back door, also provided tea whenever we wanted a little something different. Nice memory!

~Shirley Owens


My Aunt Hallie and Uncle Pat both chewed and dipped. There was a little toothpick holder that had their twig brushes in it on the sideboard.They would use their twig brush then chew a piece of T-Berry or Clove gum to freshen their mouth. Just seeing that photo brought back memories.

~Vera Guthrie


I’ve long chewed on birch twigs but it never occurred to me that it would work as a toothbrush. How cool! I love sassafras too but my grandpa and I always seemed to go after birch first.



I published this post a good while back, but recently I was contacted by a survival website. The other website was asking permission to link to the post. I guess if you no longer had access to a store bought tooth-brush, a twig brush would have to suffice just like it did when Pap was boy.

The girls are all healed up and have been released from their dental surgeon’s care.

I have one more tooth post up my sleeve so be on the lookout for it.


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  • Reply
    Ray Presley
    February 24, 2021 at 7:26 am

    The entries by Pap and Jim Casada hit on a lot of the notes that sound good memories for me, growing up in E. Tenn. The stack cake (Thanks to Tipper for the recipe) and Pap’s story of the Black Gum brush for dipping snuff were particularly interesting. I remember using a willow brush with salt and “sodie” to brush my teeth. Thanks for both those good stories as well as the recipe sounds like one my Mom used many years ago.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 5, 2016 at 2:14 am

    Gosh, today is going to be a very busy day for you. Two concerts in different states. Who’s gonna have time for a birthday party?
    Anyway, Happy Birthday to a very special lady!!

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    August 4, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    I don’t remember using twigs as toothbrushes. We always had brushes, often from the Fuller Brush man that pedaled door to door when we lived in the city.
    I do remember hearing about brushing with twigs though I can’t remember who was telling the story.
    And I still brush once or twice a week with baking soda before using toothpaste mainly to keep infections at bay. And I often swish with Listerine after I brush because I often get sinus infections, and the Listerine eases any infection that might settle in my upper teeth.
    Interesting stuff for sure.
    When you gonna share what we use to use for toilet paper, you know – the old Sears catalog. ROFLOL
    Prayers everyone’s having a great week, and a safe one too.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 4, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    I like Pap’s description of a stick as a tamp. So a tamping stick is used to pack dirt around a fence post and to pack snuff between your cheek and gum.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    August 4, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    In Choestoe, we used black gum twigs to make toothbrushes. But I was rather young, I think in first grade, when we were introduced to “store-bought” tooth brushes and tooth powder in a can that we sprinkled on our store-bought toothbrush! Buying a tube of Colgate toothpaste came later on.

  • Reply
    August 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    There was a scene in the movie “Shakespeare in Love” (I think that was it) in which the heroine gets her teeth “twig brushed” by her handmaid. Wonder if that was authentic and how long people have been doing have been brushing with twigs.

  • Reply
    August 4, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    I remember grandma Delia (mama’s mom) coming to visit with us when I was a kid. She was a natural at telling us stories that kept our attention. She only had 16 youngin’s, some were dead before I was born. But she used Bruton Snuff and always carried her stick toothbrush in her apron pocket. When she got ready for bed, she’d let her hair down and it went plum to her…ankles. (like Crystal Gail)…Ken

  • Reply
    August 4, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    Tipper, we used Sassafras twigs just for the fun of it after we had real brushes. My mother told the story of the time she borrowed her little brother’s bought brush: she wanted a real brush too. After she used his brush, secretly, she poured scolding water over it and all the bristles fell out. “Be sure your sins will find you out!” sort of thing. I find it a rather sad story.
    I’m so glad you post about these things from yester years!

  • Reply
    Pam Danner
    August 4, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    My Dad, who is 93 said that is how they brushed their teeth!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    August 4, 2016 at 10:41 am

    I wonder how well these twigs worked. You hear of many without teeth, but was that due to hygene or lace of dentists?

  • Reply
    August 4, 2016 at 10:41 am

    An older woman that I knew when I was a child dipped snuff. She told me that she made her brush with a twig from a pear tree because they made the best ones.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 4, 2016 at 9:26 am

    I cannot imagine life without my toothbrush. I brush several times a day because I like the feel of a clean mouth. I even carry a toothbrush in my pocketbook! I’m not really OCD, but close when it comes to my toothbrush.
    I love the comments and how they reflect on the ingenuity of our forefathers. They defined a problem and came up with a solution. That is at the very core of Appalachia!

  • Reply
    August 4, 2016 at 8:20 am

    That is the thing I always heard about my great Grandfather–he kept a birch twig for brushing. By the way they taste great.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 4, 2016 at 8:19 am

    My grandma used twig brushes but I never knew which tree or trees she got them from. I expect the boys returning from WWI and WWII brought a lot of changes back to the hills and hollers and ‘store bought’ toothbrushes were just one of them.
    On another ‘tooth’ story, there are regions of the country where teeth are weaker because the soil, and thus the water and food, has less bases such as calcium to build strong teeth. The eastern Kentucky coalfields is such a place because the geology is sandstone and shale. Modern diets and foodstuffs partially offset this.

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