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Thomas Jefferson's Toothbrush

Thomas Jefferson's Toothbrush handle excavated from the Thomas Everard house site, Colonial Williamsburg Department of Archaeology.

This small bone handle, most likely from a toothbrush, was excavated from the site of Thomas Everard's house from an archaeological context that dated to the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The handle is oval in cross-section, slightly curved, with a rounded and angled end. The head of the brush is missing, having broken off where the handle narrows. The owner's name, TH [illegible OS?] JEFFERSON, is engraved carefully along one side.

The bone-handled toothbrush belonged to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, second governor of Virginia, and third president of the United States. Jefferson lived in Williamsburg for extended periods of time only twice in his life. The first occasion was when he attended the College of William and Mary from 1760 to 1762; he continued his legal studies with George Wythe until 1766. The second time was when he served as the second Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia beginning in 1779. When the capitol was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780, Jefferson's official residence moved with the seat of government.

The broken toothbrush is believed to have been discarded at the time the Palace was vacated in 1780. The Palace trash was deposited across the street in the side yard of Thomas Everard's house and remained undisturbed until 1988 when it was uncovered in a layer of household debris. While it is possible the bone handle is from some other personal item belonging to Jefferson, it more closely resembles toothbrushes of that period than any other type of toiletry implement. (Colonial Williamsburg archaeological catalog # 00058-29FB.)

For Comparison: A 19th-Century Toothbrush

19th-century toothbrush excavated from the Public Hospital site, Colonial Williamsburg Department of Archaeology.This 19th-century bone toothbrush was excavated from the site of the Public Hospital. The hospital was the first mental institution built in English North America. Opened in 1773, the Public Hospital was devoted exclusively to the care and treatment of mentally ill patients. A fire in 1885 destroyed it and this toothbrush was found in the cellar of the main building. The tooothbrush survived the fire because as the wooden floors and roof of the brick hospital were consumed by fire, they collapsed into the cellar, burying and protecting many of the objects that were stored there from the heat of the fire. This bone toothbrush is a typical late nineteenth-century form with a rounded handle and flat head. The four rows of bristles did not survive in the ground and there is some slight damage to the tip of the brush head.

Hog bristles were preferred for toothbrushes of this period even though horse and badger hair had been used as early as 1723 in Europe. The unsanitary animal bristle tips often broke off, puncturing delicate gum tissue and leaving behind fragments in the gums which often led to infections. Toothbrushes continued to be made with animal bristles until 1938 when the first nylon bristle toothbrush was marketed in the United States. Early (Dupont) nylon bristles were very stiff and also caused periodontal problems until a softer bristle was developed in the early 1950s. (Colonial Williamsburg archaeological catalog # 08136-04CA.)

Bill Pittman
Curator of Archaeological Collections
Department of Archaeological Research