Using Twig Toothbrushes

Using twig toothbrushes
All of you who guessed the stick was an old timey toothbrush were right! Several of you mentioned Grandparents who used such a stick to aide their snuff dipping habit. I have the same connection. I can barely remember my Mamaw using such a stick and in more recent years I can remember seeing one stick out of Pap’s shirt pocket.

Chewing on Birch twigs

The stick in my photo-came from a Birch tree. Back in the day-there were several different varieties of twig toothbrushes used. This is what the Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia book had to say about the subject:

Hog-hair toothbrushes were available at a general store, but many people made their own out of twigs of birch, blackgum, sassafras, and willow. The twig was stripped of its bark and one end was chewed to form the brush. A willow twig made a soft brush that was usually discarded after one or two uses. A blackgum twig made a hard brush that was used several times before disposal. Birch made a soft brush and was probably selected because of its sweet taste.

Brushing your teeth with baking soda or salt

This was what Pap had to say about them:

“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.

So now you know what the stick was! If you want to read more about dental hygiene and other medicinal remedies back in the find a copy of the Folk Medicine book. And if you want to know about pulling teeth back in the day check out my post on tooth pulling in Appalachia.



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  • Reply
    Phyllis Carter
    August 2, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    I remember my Grandma and an elderly lady dipping in my community dipping snuff and using a stick toothbrush. I saw my mom dig some kind of root and make toothbrushes for my Grandma. But, I don’t know what kind of root it was. We used to have a huge Mahogany tree on our farm near one of the bottoms. We would break of a stick and chew the bark off of it. I loved the taste of it. I have never heard of anyone else doing this. My neighbor once showed me how to take wheat kernels and chew them. We used to save our chewing gum when we were kids. Often, we stuck it to the lid of the alcohol bottle or some other bottle sitting on the dresser. We loved to mix cocoa powder with sugar and pretend we were dipping snuff. We never tried the real stuff.

    • Reply
      Annie Kelley
      October 28, 2021 at 1:35 pm

      Probably sassafras if the root was dug.

  • Reply
    June 24, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    By the time I came along in the 50s, and in the Piedmont, it was a thing for children to talk about. My cousin told me about it and we’d chew them, but I never saw one used for real, even by the snuff dippers. From your description I reckon it was black gum.

  • Reply
    Mary Berrong
    August 31, 2011 at 10:21 am

    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.

  • Reply
    August 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I’ll have to ask my mom about this. I bet that’s what they used. Amazing what we take for granted these days!

  • Reply
    teresa atkinson
    August 30, 2011 at 10:07 am

    I still use baking soda to brush my teeth occasionally. And we all use it to get the styling product residue out of our hair.
    Have a wonderful day.

  • Reply
    August 30, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Neat! I’ve never seen one before, but it seems I’ve heard of them before.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    August 29, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    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!

  • Reply
    Kim @ Stuff could....
    August 29, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    It amazes me what they did to survive or live….We take so much for granted nowadays!

  • Reply
    August 29, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Hi Tipper,
    I never would have thought of a toothbrush! I recently move to North Carolina in your area, (Warne, NC)
    I have a lot of sassafras trees in my yard and treat them very special as they are my favorite.
    I am trying to learn the tree and bush names around us and your blog is so enlightning.
    I hope to meet you soon around Brasstown.
    Smiles, Cyndi

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    August 29, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    One of my older neighbors told me about using a snuff ‘toothbrush’ but I’ve never seen one. The same woman told me about packing ground coffee in her cheek when she went to the field to hoe.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    August 29, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Granny Salmons and most of my aunts “dipped” snuff. Granny would use a frayed twig, she called it a toothbrush. She would wet it and dip it into the can of snuff and put it under her lip. (Let me interject that the snuff they used was called Scotch Snuff. It was a fine powder. I assume that it was just pulverized tobacco.) Most of my aunts just packed it between their lip and gum. Everyone traveled with “spit” cups.
    I remember my first and only experience with snuff.
    My Aunt Bet was visiting. She had a big jar of snuff. She was telling everyone how good it was. Everyone that dipped was trying it. I wanted some also. Of course I was denied. But she left the glass of snuff on the table. I remember climbing up in a chair and getting the lid off. I smelled it and it smelled terrible. I blew into the snuff. It flew out into the air and into my face. My nose mouth and eyes were burning so bad that I could barely scream.
    If anyone tells me that a two year old is too young to make life decisions, I can refute any argument they make. That was my first and LAST experience with snuff.

  • Reply
    Shirley Owens
    August 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Here’s a P.S. Those little glasses that the snuff came in were handy for us to save for drinking glasses. The size was just right. No glutteny there!

  • Reply
    Shirley Owens
    August 29, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    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 everyay. The bush being so close to the back door, also provided tea whenever we wanted a little something different. Nice memory! Thanks, Shirley

  • Reply
    Wanda in NoAla
    August 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Sassafras was the choice for twig brushes in my world; maybe because it grew abundantly and was easily available. I don’t recall them being used to clean teeth; just for the snuff-dippin’ folks. I still use the salt/soda mixture to clean my teeth sometimes; just like the way it cleans. Thank the Lord for dental hygiene!

  • Reply
    August 29, 2011 at 11:48 am

    I can remember my mama’s mama using Garrett and Bruton snuff. One time I asked her if I could
    taste it and she said “shaw no
    son, you don’t won’t none of this
    stuff.” At the time I just figured
    she was stingy, but maybe she just
    prevented a bad habit.
    Enjoyed all the comments…Ken

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    August 29, 2011 at 11:15 am

    This just brought to mind my grandpa’s habit with his “wax”–chewing gum. He had a little glass bottle like creme perfume might have come in–old a
    Avon type thing. He carried it in his pocket & parked his “wax” in it when he got tired of chewing. I can remember sticking gum on the bed frame at night but I’m not sure we rechewed it like Grandpa did. It was always Juicy Fruit.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    August 29, 2011 at 11:12 am

    My granny pulled out her aching tooth by tying it to a smoothing iron & dropping the iron. When I was little we went to the “cheap” dentist–I think it was $2 to pull a tooth. He pulled out my abscessed baby jaw tooth without the deadening having time to work. The next time, it took him & Daddy to get my mouth open. I blame them for my TMJ problems today.
    Thank God for modern dentistry. I’ve had a great dentist for 30 yrs now. Funny, sweet & very gentle. Sadly, he’s very ill with cancer–wish you all would remember him when you pray.
    One of my questions for the Lord (presuming I make it up there) is why in the world people had to have so much trouble with their teeth.

  • Reply
    Sheila Bergeron
    August 29, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I liked this post. The dental tech where I go is from Kentucky and proud of her Hill billy roots-she has a display of dental hygene items and has an old timey toothbrush. Never knew about the brushes and snuff. I do remember slipping into Mamaw’s snuff when I was jonesin for a ciggarette.

  • Reply
    August 29, 2011 at 10:14 am

    interesting but i rather have sugar cane which was my guess. have never seen this before, so all new to me.

  • Reply
    B f
    August 29, 2011 at 10:08 am

    i must have missed this one . yes i do remember this tooth brush as i have had to go find them for my granny and if they didnt suit her
    guess what? i had to back and find one that suited her and for a small girl sometimes it was hard as i really didnt know “a good one
    for now dont you know i didnt dip snuff(ha) and havent ever wanted it since i begged for a taste to see what was so good about it as theold people would climb a mountain for their snuff
    but i got a good lesson when i begged for it and was obliged
    what a hot nasty taste
    no thank you no more snuff for this gal

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 29, 2011 at 9:43 am

    No, Tipper, I don’t want to know more about pulling teeth in Appalachia. I don’t even want to know about pulling teeth now. LOL
    I had a very touchy relationship with dentists when I was young. It has improved greatly but I’d still like to pretend it doesn’t exist.
    Thanks, though, for the information. We have come a long way in dental hygiene. Makes me wonder what the future of dental care will look like.
    What will the toothbrushes Chitter and Chatter’s grandchildren will look like?

  • Reply
    Wayne Newton
    August 29, 2011 at 9:32 am

    Tipper, Grandma also kept a dainty white handkerchief in her apron pocket along with the snuff can and brush.
    She used the cloth to wipe her or our face; she also used another corner of it to tie up a few coins that she doled out for little chores we did for her.
    She was never without those few coins, never did discover where she kept them before putting them in the hanky.

  • Reply
    August 29, 2011 at 9:25 am

    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.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    August 29, 2011 at 7:29 am

    I have to say no one in my family used one in my presence, I would imagine the practice was wide spread though. How creative.

  • Reply
    Barbara Gantt
    August 29, 2011 at 7:19 am

    OH my, I remember my Grandma and Aunts carrying their stuff jar and “toothbrushes”. Hated the snuff mess. My middle son lives close to a place called Black Gum Swamp. We love to break off the black gum twigs and smell them. Barbara

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    August 29, 2011 at 7:07 am

    The only difference between your picture of the toothbrush twig and my Grannies, as I remember it..was hern’ was stained a nice brown..rarely ever saw a bright white one…
    In her apron pocket, she also had a flowered hankerchief hanging over the edge that she used to wipe the corners of her mouth after a dip, as well as her cherished snuff can…While she was sittin’ and rockin’, her hand usually held the hankerchief in her lap…When we went in to greet and kiss her at her house, she would wipe her face off as well as when we went to leave she would give it a swipe with that “hanky” and then give us a big kiss…she was about 90 years old at that time..then and always, she kept hard candy in the top “chester drawers” to give me..usually it was horehound or peppermint.
    She was the one who taught me to open the bottom drawer, then the next like a ladder, to climb up so I could reach in and get the candy bag…Back then you didn’t worry about a “chester drawers” falling on you..They were so heavy they would never tilt…Kids miss a lot today!
    Thanks for the memories, Tipper.

  • Reply
    Vera Guthrie
    August 29, 2011 at 6:42 am

    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.

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