Friday, May 30, 2014

Floss - A Contemporary History

There is a common version of how dental floss came to be a part of our everyday lives which is factually correct, yet still leaves out the biggest part of the story. The accepted version is one that can be found on the website for Oral B, and I will include those facts here; even give you a link to it at the end; but not before I make my case.

It is true, as stated in the Oral B account, that ancient peoples used some sort of string to floss with. But what is left out is that the Chinese were the first ones to use silk instead of pointy wooden sticks; the precursors of toothpicks; to dislodge things from in between their teeth. The Oral B article gives credit to a dentist in New Orleans around 1815 for the discovery of silk as a material to floss with. But, where did he get the idea?

I mean silk wasn’t exactly a local product that could be had cheaply. As a matter of fact, at the time only the very wealthy could afford to see a dentist. The first dental college wasn’t even open yet. That would happen in Baltimore around 1830. The School is still there today. So where did he come up with this idea? Ships.

New Orleans was and always will be home to a thriving merchant trade. Sailors coming from China most likely had been introduced to floss while making port calls during the early years of the tea and opium trade. That the dentist just happened to know one as a patient is the most likely scenario.

The Oral B site goes on to explain the “evolution” of dental floss between 1882 and 1896. This was the period in which dental floss began to be manufactured. It was silk and unwaxed at first. Codman and Shurtleft is the company credited with this. Johnson and Johnson came along in 1896 with a higher quality surgical silk. Still no wax; which is odd, because by this time, sailors were using waxed sail twine for their dental needs.

The article goes on to say that in the 1940’s nylon was used for the first time along with the first commercial waxed floss becoming available. And that’s about all they have to say. The rest is just hype about flossing. But how and why did flossing not catch on with ordinary Americans until about the 1970’s? This is when most Americans will recall starting to see it in stores; or even mentioned by their dentists.

There are two big reasons. The first is economic. Until the 1950’s most Americans didn’t get to a dentist on a regular basis. Many of the veterans from World War Two had never seen a dentist until they were in the service. When the war ended they continued to go for checkups etc. on a regular basis. Dentistry was taking off! This is a good thing. Remember when we were kids and everybody had “morning breath?” It was the staple of advertisements for mouth wash. But the real culprit was still the fact that most people did not even know floss existed; waxed or unwaxed. Morning breath was more about what was stuck between your teeth than about mouthwash. It’s just that no one had told us.

Here’s where the United Sates Navy comes in. Actually it was in the 1920’s and 30’s, the time of the China River Patrols depicted in the film “The Sand Pebbles” starring Steve McQueen. In real life these guys came home with a serious habit; and it wasn’t opium. They had learned to floss with silk while serving overseas, and as anyone who flosses can attest, once you get started it ain’t easy to stop.

These were the first of the men who served in the military and then came home, forming part of the new middle class created by Roosevelt’s New Deal, who were using floss. Then, by the time our guys were serving in Vietnam, the Navy was engaged in a tremendous dental program with the emphasis on prevention. This included floss, which the Navy was very familiar with from its time in China.

Now; with millions of men being processed in and out of the service; floss began to appear on the radar screen of the ADA. They had been aware of it, to be sure, but now came the big push to get everybody on board with this preventive method of dental care. Think back on it and let me know when you first were introduced to floss. I was initiated in boot camp at Great Lakes in the Navy. While I was in it seems to have suddenly appeared everywhere. It was brand new; it was the hype; the thing; it was about 6,000 years old.

Here is the link to the Oral B site, as promised. After all, if you have read this far then you deserve some sort of reward.

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