Old Timey Toothbrushes

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.




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  • Reply
    Laura J
    March 20, 2021 at 8:50 pm

    I remember growing up when we went camping, my uncle Fred taught us about chewing on birch twigs to brush our teeth and freshen our breath. Have never forgotten those wonderful times with family in the woods by the creek.

  • Reply
    Kimberly Burnette
    April 15, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    My grandma used to dip snuff and she always had her twig toothbrush to dip with. She always said the twig came from a “mahogany bush” and there was one that grew on the banks of the creek behind our house. I wonder if it really was a black gum?

  • Reply
    Betty "JO" Eason Benedict
    April 13, 2018 at 7:01 am

    Tipper your posts just draw out the best memories from folks. I can picture Grannies back porch with the white enameled wash basin and bucket of water with a dipper in it. I still on occasion use soda ……. nice change from foamy sweet toothpastes. Aunt Lorrie was a legendary snuff dipper…… was said she could spit in a gnat’s eye at 20 paces!!!

  • Reply
    Fay Nell Pitts
    June 18, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    I used those black gum toothbrushes for quite a few years and I loved the taste of them. We used baking sodie to brush our teeth with. If I find a black gum tree nowadays, I can’t resist breaking off a brush and chewing on it. I remember us visiting our grandma who lived 12 or 15 miles from us and we took a pint jar and cut 8-10 toothbrushes and Mama wrapped them in a damp rag and we took them with us while we rode a wagon on dirt roads to see her. This really brought back some good memories for this soon to be 83 year old lady. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • Reply
    Lauren Adams
    August 11, 2015 at 7:35 pm

    I have never seen a toothbrush that looks quite like the one in that picture. That is pretty cool, I must admit. However, I question how effective it is. Now that I see it, I can’t help but wonder if that is the reason why so many older people have dentures now.

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    May 2, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    Never saw one in use, but I have heard of those and it would certainly do in a pinch!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 30, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    Ain’t it amazing that the human race survived for so many thousands of years without plastic handled toothbrushes with nylon bristles and soapy tasting toothpaste?
    Ain’t it amazing that science is still finding medicines among the flora and fauna that has always inhabited the same places we humans have just discovered?
    Ain’t we the lucky ones?

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    April 30, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    Read about this a few years back in a novel I was reading, can’t remember which one, but I think they used a Sassafras twig. It would probably be sweet, like root beer, cause root beer (or old time Sarsaparilla) were made from Sassafras roots, although now scientists say the bark, twigs and leaves of it are poisonous, with only the roots being safe for humans to eat/drink.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    April 30, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    My granny dipped snuff. She washed out a snuff tin and cut me a toothbrush. She mixed cocoa powder and sugar in the tin to make my “snuff” so we could dip together. It’s a wonder I didn’t have tons of cavities but I didn’t.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    April 30, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for sharing all our memories, Tipper! I truly believe the little day to day stories are what keeps history alive-

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 30, 2015 at 11:49 am

    I prefer birch for the flavor. I guess blackgum would be better. It is about the toughest wood I have ever encountered. We used to use it for chop blocks. When we had lumber sawed, the sawmill culled it. Said it dulled their blades.

  • Reply
    April 30, 2015 at 11:19 am

    All those enjoyable stories reminds me of long ago. My grandma on my mama’s side use to come and stay with us some and she dipped snuff. I don’t ever remember her without that little apron she wore to carry her toothbrush twig and snuff.(She could tell the best ghost stories!)
    They sent me after the milk at
    the Spring at suppertime and I’d
    always break me a twig of birch
    or sassafras to gnaw on.
    Such wonderful memories…Ken

  • Reply
    April 30, 2015 at 11:17 am

    I remember clove, licorice and Tberry gum! Do they still make that anywheres?

  • Reply
    Ken Ryan
    April 30, 2015 at 11:06 am

    When I was a kid we lived just across the garden patch from my grand mother. She was an avid Levi Garret snuff dipper. I can remember she would raise the kitchen window while cooking so she could get a little breeze. She would sit on the window sill and occasionally put two fingers to her lips and shoot a stream of tobacco way out into the yard. She used a brush, too…probably sweet gum or sassafras.

  • Reply
    Joe Mode
    April 30, 2015 at 10:57 am

    My wife’s uncle and mother I believe, mentioned that they used Sassafras for their toothbrush. Did you know if you crunch up dried Sassafras leaves they smell like fruit loops?

  • Reply
    April 30, 2015 at 10:12 am

    So I’ve heard, Pap, so I’ve heard- from Meemaw and others.

  • Reply
    April 30, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Well, this is a new piece of information for me to share with my friends. What kind of taste, if any, does the blackgum tree have? Gosh, if you were living on the land, no need to buy a toothbrush or other modern conveniences.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    April 30, 2015 at 8:51 am

    Well Tipper, you sure struck a familiar note on this post. Those birch tooth sticks were my favior right! My grandsons would never believe what life was like back in the Cove. My first visit to old Dr. Waldroup up in Hiwassee will NEVER be forgotten! Eva Nell

  • Reply
    barbara Gantt
    April 30, 2015 at 8:36 am

    I remember my Dad going out to hunt a toothbrush even tho we had the store bought ones. My Granny and Aunts dipped so always had one nearby.
    My son lives near what is called Black Gum Swamp. It is a favorite place to hike and deer hunt. His land is near the swamp and full of black gum trees. Barbara

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    April 30, 2015 at 8:16 am

    My grandmother used a birch or sassafras twig…She kept it in the pocket of her apron with her snuff. She used the stick to dip her snuff. Her handkerchief was kept in her right hand or on her lap. She used it to wipe the corners of her mouth…I know…ewwww! But, we loved her just the same…From the time I remember recognizing her as my Granny…she was always a little white-headed woman sitting in the rocking chair in the sitting room…just off the kitchen!
    I remember Dad making us a birch or sassafras toothbrush when we were kids…He had gone to the woods to get a twig or two to make Granny some new brush/dip sticks. I kept mine for a long time until it got lost somewhere in the old Packard between NC and TN on the way back home! LOL
    Thanks Tipper loved this post today…brought back a lot of memories…
    PS…Today is our Golden anniversary…50 years married. Well, actually not until 7:00 PM this evening…The children gave us a “surprise anniversary party” last Sunday afternoon with the works…dinner, a 50 anniversary cake and balloons….LOL We had no idea…I don’t know how they pulled it off without the youngest grandchild giving it away as we saw him just about every day…He said…”I kept the secret!” and he did!

  • Reply
    Gina S
    April 30, 2015 at 7:35 am

    On a long-ago walk in the woods with Daddy, he showed me how to make a toothbrush. I believe he used a Sassafras twig, though.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    April 30, 2015 at 7:34 am

    We had “regular” store-bought toothbrushes when I was a child, but if we went to Grandpa’s house for an overnight stay and forgot to take along our toothbrush, we went to the woods and got a small blackgum stick and made our toothbrush. That and soda from the kitchen, and a good rinse with water, worked well to give us a clean mouth. I can remember how clean and salty-like the soda made my mouth feel. Just for the “clean” taste of it, I still use it sometimes now to brush my teeth. Thanks for the reminder of those “make-do” days!

  • Reply
    Steven Kendrick
    April 30, 2015 at 5:01 am

    I was raised in rural W. Alabama (deep south) in the late 40’s and spent my most memorable and enjoyable years around my “Aunt Sarah” an old black woman that virtually raised me in the 50’s. She dipped snuff and she had a black gum tooth brush in the corner of her mouth constantly. I can remember her sending me out to get her a new one numerous times. She was so very special to me, she taught me how to sharpen and ax, how to clean a squirrel, how to dig worms and many, many more things that I still use as of today.

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