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"Surely I cannot have read a 400 page book about the toothpick!" was my feeling when I set down Henry Petroski's _The Toothpick: Technology and Culture_ (Knopf). But the pages slipped by, each with its details about "History's Splendid Splinter". Actually, that is the title of a fictitious journal of supposedly scholarly essays on all aspects of the toothpick, and it is funny to think of scholarship expended on such a teensy tool. Petroski's book is no joke, though he is a amusing writer. He is a professor of civil engineering and of history, and likes to write about small manufactured things to reveal larger themes, as he did in a previous book, _The Pencil_. It is hard to imagine that he has left anything out, including toothpicks in history and pre-history, toothpicks in fiction, toothpick etiquette through the ages, toothpicks and global trade, and plenty more. Why has he lit upon the toothpick? Petroski says it is a common wooden object, the simplest of manufactured things, has no moving parts, needs no maintenance, is universally available, and it performs a function humans really need. He writes, "Nothing can be more annoying than having a piece of food stuck between our teeth." Sucking on the object will often do little, the tongue can't grab, and fingers are too blunt to get leverage; the toothpick is the specific tool for the specific job. It can, of course, probe into other small spaces if you are, say, cleaning a tiny figurine, and it does a splendid job of holding sandwiches together or giving a handle to an olive (Petroski's witty author photo shows him in a tux, holding an toothpick so accessorized). Generally, though, this is a history of picks for teeth.
They weren't always wood. When humans could make tools, toothpicks were among the first; a gold Mesopotamian toilet set of 3500 BCE has a tweezers, an earspoon, and a toothpick on chains as if on a key ring. Greeks and Romans used wood splinters as well as metal needle-type picks. Bones from chicken and fish have been used, as have walrus whiskers (packets of which were supplied to airline passengers by an Alaskan airline just forty years ago). The premier non-wood toothpick had to be the goose quill, which was one of the first mass marketed toothpicks, made as a cottage industry all over Europe. Charles became the world's premier toothpick manufacturer, starting around 1870, getting the machines that made shoe pegs (look them up) retooled to make sharper, longer pieces. He not only made toothpicks but made a market for them, and there was a turn-of-the-century toothpick boom. This did not mean that everyone approved. In 1883, an author was disgusted by the craze. "These toothpick fiends you may observe anywhere and at all times. They pick their teeth at the table, in the parlor, on the street, in the horse-cars, in the hotel office, on the rotundas, and in fact everywhere you meet them; the mania is prevalent, and is increasing rapidly." Using the toothpick after dinner has usually been seen as something to be done in private, and this is the general rule over the long term, although some etiquette advisors have authorized public use if shielded by a hand, a newspaper, or a napkin. Their opponents have felt such camouflage hides nothing and thus makes the crime of picking worse by adding to it an attempt at deception.
It is interesting that Petroski, acknowledging the world-wide array of libraries he has visited to compile this work, also has much to say about the use of the internet. It will surprise no one to know that there is a great deal of misinformation on the web about details of the toothpick's history, and Petroski quotes battling websites on different issues. More interesting is his appreciation of eBay as a research tool; he has been able to find pictures and descriptions of toothpicks and toothpick holders of all sorts. All his research has produced an amusing book full of toothpick miscellany. Here you will find reference to the people who build huge models of the Eiffel Tower or the Titanic out of toothpicks, or the role of the toothpick in the invention of Q-Tips, or the history of the Arkansas Toothpick (the Bowie knife), or the range of the National Toothpick Holder Collectors Society, or the death by toothpick of author Sherwood Anderson. I guarantee that you will not find a more entertaining book on this subject.