A large, heavy glass dispenser, filled with dental floss, is featured at the Benco Dental museum in Northeast Pennsylvania. This “Champion” dental floss dispenser, from Johnson & Johnson, circa early 1900s, is much different from the lightweight, small floss dispensers we use today. It has more in common with a paperweight. Still, the floss featured inside is not unfamiliar to people today.
When did flossing between teeth emerge as a health and hygiene practice? Turns out, dentists have been telling patients to floss since the early 19th century!
Quacks in the Profession
Floss came about due to the lack of professionalism in dentistry. Back in the early 19th century, the job of a dentist was not taken seriously. Most dentists of the time were little more than quacks. A Baltimore dentist in 1826 bemoaned this lack of respect in his book, Principles of Surgery:
This unsettled and vague state of practical Dental Surgery, not only exposes the profession and the unwary public to the errors of the dentist, but it also leaves the greatest opening for the most impudent and ignorant pretenders to assume a profession, which they utterly disgrace.… It is a well-known fact that there are quacks in every professions, and in every country; but it cannot be denied that they most particularly abound in the United States of America and England.
Dentists at that time didn’t know enough about how to prevent or treat tooth decay. They didn’t even know what caused it. One man was determined to improve the standing of dentists by learning all he could, and finding ways to help people keep their teeth intact. His name: Levi Spear Parmly. Born in Braintree, Vermont in 1790, he was a practicing dentist in New Orleans by 1818.
Dr. Parmly stated he blamed the “slow progress of the dental sciences” for society’s lack of respect for dentistry. Parmly’s prescription for progress: “A great improvement of this department of surgery, will depend on pointing out to society the importance of preventing diseases of the teeth.”
Parmly vaguely suggested an institution for this kind of training and education, but nothing came of it. He decided to remedy his own deficiencies by heading to London in 1819, to learn all he could about dentistry. When he returned to America, he knew all there was to know at that time. He set up in New York and became one of the era’s most respected dentists. He believed that cavities were caused by foreign matter on the teeth and the best way to combat them was to keep the teeth very clean. He introduced flossing as the best way to prevent dental disease. It would take another 100 years for the idea to catch on.
In childhood, before the loss of the temporary teeth, the mouth should be regularly cleaned every evening,…the brush should at first be but gently applied, and then particular care taken to pass the waxed silk in the interstices, and round the necks of the teeth, where lodgements of the food (the causes of disease) are usually formed.
From Dr. Parmly’s book, A Practical Guide to the Management of the Teeth (1819).
Champion Floss to the Rescue!
Despite advocating waxed silk to floss between teeth, evidence suggests that few people took up Dr. Parmly on his advice, as there was no commercial floss in the early 19th century.
* In the early 1900s, Johnson & Johnson had entered the scene with their sterile waxed silk, Champion Floss, which was distributed in small, sterile tubes.
*By the early 1930s, floss was advertised in many major newspapers throughout the U.S.
* By the 1940s, when silk became scarce due to the war effort, nylon was substituted and the rest is dental history.
Dr. Parmly was right all along:
Flossing is the best way to remove decay-causing food particles from your teeth. So whether you use old-fashioned waxed nylon floss, or Benco’s newest teeth-cleaning tool, the PRO-SYS® JetFloss, floss your teeth! Your mouth will thank you.