Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


As far back as Neanderthal man, humans had realised that sometimes we needed more than just a grubby fingernail to remove a stubborn sliver of roasted mammoth from between the teeth and so the toothpick was born, probably pre-dating the toothbrush or toothstick by millennia.

Starting as probably nothing more than a piece of twig, toothpicks have evolved with humanity, reaching their artistic and aesthetic zenith in the 16th century, though this one might be more recent. Indeed there are references to golden toothpicks in the 16th-century Spanish  Picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes where a starving squire is said to leave his house every morning with a toothpick in his mouth as if he has crumbs between his teeth when he hasn’t eaten anything. 

The above example is for sale on an antiques website. But would you clean your teeth with it? After so many generation of foul-breathed, rotten-toothed, users, you really would??

As I discussed in my entry on design and the Nutbrown elephant pie funnel, design in toothpicks has also become more functional. Now toothpicks are sold literally by the hundred. They are excellent material for children’s handicrafts and will help make any child’s creativity and imagination soar.

They are wonderful for spearing olives and other similar amuse-bouches. Here in Spain if you ask for a tapa of snails, the waiter will also bring you a dozen or more toothpicks so that you don’t have to suck and slurp away at the spicy little molluscs[1]. For spectator and diner  alike, toothpicks are more elegant, but less shirt-stainingly fun.
Note the artistic toothpicks
However, the elegance of toothpick use quickly fades when we approach with trepidation its original, its ancestral use. The enthusiastic digging, probing and sawing that seems to accompany the accomplished toothpicker’s finest efforts is not one of my favourite sights – or sounds,  but a least this is just hygiene and is easily forgiven.

This second toothpick-related activity, however, mystifies me and always has.
Image from:
Can anyone tell me what is so cool about having a little bit of wood dangling from the side of your mouth or connecting your gums to your nostrils? 

And why is it more common among young and old men while those of us fortunate enough (at the moment!) not to belong to either group seem to eschew the habit? Some might suggest that they are a means of trying to give up smoking. Others claim that like chewing gum they are acting as a type of adult oral comforter. All I know is that it looks damn silly and that in my house the toothpicks will remain firmly ensconced in the kitchen and will only be used for spearing food, not facial orifices. 

[1] I have never tried them – and do not intend to!


  1. This puts me in mind of the cliché of the yokel with a straw in his mouth. It does seem that some people never lose the habit acquired during infancy of putting inedible objects into their mouths. It has been suggested that this is even a component in the smoking habit.

    If it is the case that putting objects into one's mouth is a persistent habit even in adults, then one might expect that in the latter case fashion would play a role. It seems that in certain communities, for some obscure reason, having a toothpick in one's mouth is fashionable. (In others, a matchstick plays a similar role.) Perhaps it is a badge of membership of some ill-defined social group, possibly called "real men" or some such.

    And, of course, some of us may remember a TV cop called Kojak who always sucked a lollypop...

  2. I think perhaps that such oral toys are mistakenly regarded by their users as being "manly". You never know, perhaps it's a subliminal message that the insertee(?) is so macho that he can even eat trees, or in the case of straw, whole fields of crops!

    How many women do we see sporting a toothpick? If we see them, does such behaviour make them appear more attractive? Indeed, would any man with any common sense believe that sucking on a splinter makes him seem irresistible to women and a fearsome warrior to men?