Book Review – The Toothpick by Henry Petroski

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture
by Henry Petroski
Alfred A. Knopf, 443 pages, $35.95

“The close study of anything as both an object and as an idea is potentially intellectually rewarding and revealing about the technology and culture in which it is embedded.” So says Henry Petroski, and he knows whereof he speaks.

Petroski, a professor of history at Duke University and the Aleksander S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering, has made quite a side career for himself as a popularizer of what many would regard as ‘the mundane.’ In previous books outlining the history of the pencil, the bookshelf, and multiple other devices that most people never give a second thought to, Petroski has sought to reveal the “hidden and frequently overlooked relationships among the people and things of the world.”

Thus, for his fourteenth book, Petroski undertakes a meticulously researched assessment of one of the simplest manufactured artifacts in existence. The Toothpick: Technology and Culture places the examined object within the context of the evolution of civilization, with always-intriguing results.

The toothpick, as a device, has existed in one form or another since mankind’s first meal. A simple apparatus has long been sought as a tasteful alternative to our body’s natural pick; “whenever we proceed to drag the tongue across and thrust it between our teeth at a repast’s tenacious residue, we reveal our mission by the bulge moving around our lips and cheeks like a mole beneath the lawn.”

As Petroski notes, there is no one single starting point for such a tool. Examining the fossil record of our ancestors, grooves in skeletal teeth reveal that twigs, rocks, and grass are the historical antecedents to the now-ubiquitous smooth wooden utensil we are familiar with.

The modern pick, in its mass-produced form, is typically attributed to Charles Forster, an American businessman “who recognized the potential for ultimately large profits in small, trivial things such as toothpicks sold by and for the millions.” As Petroski digs deeper, we see that by following the progression of the toothpick, with its cultural nuances and technological advancements, we are following the development of civilization.

All this would be for naught if Petroski treated his subject with the dry reverence of a scholarly treatise. Luckily, like contemporaries such as Mark Kurlansky (Cod) and Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman), Petroski has the narrative skills to match his mania for research. While Petroski does not brandish the storytelling prowess of his peers, his passion and fascination more than make up for a unexceptional and slightly unwieldy framework.

Adding spice is the bizarre arcana that crops up surrounding “the oldest habit,” ranging from George Washington’s rules of civility, “the one hundredth maxim of which cautioned against using a knife or fork to remove stuck food,” to the ancient Chinese and Romans, who carried toothpicks as a vital part of their daily jewelry.

The famed Bowie knife is sometimes known, depending on the area, as the Arkansas, Louisiana, or Texas Toothpick. Poetry has been written as to its uses and flaws, and the number of people who have perished from toothpick-related mishaps (including, possibly, U.S. President Warren G. Harding) is surprisingly high.

“People are by nature adaptive, creative, and inventive, capable of taking anything far beyond its stated and intended purpose…Given a lever, they will move the earth. Given a toothpick, they will turn it into a universal tool.” Henry Petroski believes this, and The Toothpick is proof positive that not only can the toothpick be a tool with many uses, it can also be the source of a marvelous book.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, December 30, 2007.