November 20, 2007


The Glorious Toothpick: The humble mass-produced toothpick is a paradigm for American manufacturing: inspiration, invention, marketing, trade, success, and failure (Henry Petroski From the November/December 2007, The American)

Toothpicks made in the Portuguese tra­dition were common in Brazil in the mid-19th century when Charles Forster, an American work­ing in the import-export trade, found them being crafted and used by natives there. It was a time when the manufacture of just about everything was becoming mechanized in America, and Forster believed that toothpicks could be mass-produced in New England at a cost that would allow them even to be exported to Brazil and compete with the handmade kind.

Since Forster had poor mechanical skills, he had to look to others for help when he retuned to Boston to take up toothpick manufacture. He found assis­tance first in Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, a brilliant inventor who was concentrating on mech­anizing shoe manufacturing. At the time, most shoes were held together with wooden pegs, which were pointed at one end so they could be driven like nails. Sturtevant’s genius was to devise a method for peeling logs into long, narrow, and beveled strips of thin veneer, from which the pegs could be cut and driven by machine. Forster’s genius was to see that, with only minor modifications, double-pointed toothpicks could be produced in much the same way.

Forster was soon making toothpicks in Boston, but people there did not see much point in buying quantities of what they could whittle themselves. To sell his product, Forster devised clever schemes. He hired employees to visit stores and ask for wooden toothpicks, which retailers were not accustomed to carrying. Soon after these disappointed customers left, Forster himself would come in peddling his wares wholesale. As soon as the storekeepers had toothpicks in stock, Forster’s shills would return and buy them. These were then returned to Forster, who recycled them to the trade.

In another scheme, he engaged Harvard students to eat at local restaurants and ask loudly for wooden toothpicks, which the restaurant managers soon felt obligated to provide. Having established a mar­ket in the Boston area, Forster moved his fledgling manufacturing operation to Maine, where white birch grew in abundance. With the help of Charles Freeman—a Sturtevant employee who had been assigned to develop the toothpick machinery—Forster’s mill was soon turning out toothpicks by the millions daily.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2007 7:26 AM
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