Saturday, November 3, 2007

"The Toothpick"

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his latest book, The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, and reported the following:
As its subtitle suggests, The Toothpick is not only about the development of the machinery that could mass-produce wooden toothpicks by the millions daily but also about the many ways in which the “splendid splinters” have been both embraced and scorned throughout the world.

Since page 69 occurs relatively early in the story, it is about the many interests of the inventor Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, who in 1863 received the first patent relating to the manufacture of toothpicks — an idea he derived from his method for making wooden pegs by which the uppers were fastened to the soles of shoes in the mid-nineteenth century! The rights to Sturtevant’s patent were acquired by Charles Forster, who went on to accumulate a fortune making and selling nothing but wooden toothpicks.

Before page 69, the reader will learn of the fossil evidence that enables archaeologists to call toothpicking the “oldest human habit”; of the many different things that have been used for toothpicks (goose quills, bird beaks, walrus whiskers, etc.); of the five-century-old Portuguese tradition of making excellent toothpicks by hand; of Charles Forster’s discovery of these toothpicks in Brazil and his vision of making such good toothpicks by machine that he would be able to export them to South America and around the world.

After page 69, the reader will find out how Forster accomplished his dream and how his marketing genius made wooden toothpicks all the rage in America by the 1880s. But not everyone approved of men and women walking around with a toothpick in their mouth, and so the debates about manners and etiquette that continue to this day are recounted in The Toothpick. The varying customs associated with toothpick use in different cultures are described, as are the different kinds of toothpicks that can be found around the world.

There are also chapters on the many different unintended uses of toothpicks; the dangers of swallowing a toothpick; the various means that have been devised for dispensing sanitary toothpicks in public places; the ways in which inventors have claimed to have improved upon the common toothpick; the final disposition of Charles Forster’s toothpick empire; the secrecy associated with the manufacture wooden toothpicks; and the fate of toothpick making in America today as a result of inferior imports from China.
Read an excerpt from The Toothpick and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue