Dental floss has been called “the new duct tape” (a product that also has a tie to Johnson & Johnson!) because of its many inventive uses by consumers. As bizarre as some of these uses may be, the product’s origins are equally unusual, and they go back not only to the beginnings of Johnson & Johnson, but to the early days of one of its medical devices affiliate companies as well.
Although people have apparently been using things to clean between their teeth since prehistoric times, this article in American Heritage explains that dental floss was officially invented somewhere around 1819 by a dentist (who else?) from Vermont named Levi Spear Parmly. Parmly recommended his invention as one of the three tools (the other being a toothbrush and a dentifrice – that’s a tooth-cleaning preparation) for preventing tooth decay. According to American Heritage, many Americans at that time lacked an inexpensive tooth powder, so they cleaned their teeth with two common items known for their abrasive qualities: salt and, amazingly enough, gunpowder. Even after tooth powder (the forerunner of tooth paste) came into use, people still didn’t use dental floss. Ordinary household sewing thread wasn’t strong enough to withstand the wear and tear of getting it between a person’s teeth, and the stronger silk dental floss was hard to get and too expensive. So people augmented their tooth care by using the sharpened ends of quills or slivers of wood to clean between their teeth.
Codman & Shurtleff, 1800s
The first recorded patent for dental floss was issued in 1874 to Asahel M. Shurtleff. Shurtleff was a partner in a Massachusetts medical devices company called Codman & Shurtleff, which became part of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies in 1964 and remains a part of it today. Codman & Shurtleff started marketing unwaxed silk dental floss in 1882, according to American Heritage Magazine.
Early Suture Products
But it was Johnson & Johnson that first made dental floss widely available. And the reason for that? Sterile sutures. Since 1887 sterile sutures were a part of the Company’s product line, and they were a natural outgrowth of the founders’ mission to provide the first mass-produced sterile dressings for surgery. Catgut and silk were the most common suture materials, and the Company bought silk in quantity to use in the manufacture of sterile sutures. The Johnson brothers were always looking for ways to improve public health, and they had the idea of taking the leftover silk that wasn’t used in suture production and making a dental floss that could be produced in quantity and packaged to make it affordable. In keeping with its origins in the Company’s suture product lines, there was even a Lister Dental Floss that was impregnated with an antiseptic.
Lister Dental Floss Ad and Product, 1913
The Company advertised dental floss by placing counter displays in drug stores, along with a variety of ads and show cards that were displayed by druggists. This display ad from 1914 shows an illustration of a woman vigorously flossing her teeth, and would have been displayed on a drugstore counter. The actual tins of dental floss are attached to the bottom of the ad.
Dental Floss Ad from 1914, “Better Than Toothpicks”
The July, 1898 Johnson & Johnson price list listed plain and waxed silk floss in 12 and 24 yard spools. It was initially packaged in flat round metal containers, and then cylindrical tins that held a small amount of floss. The packages had a built-in cutting device so that people could conveniently get the amount of floss they needed. In the Nineteen-teens, the Company packaged dental floss in a glass container, still with the same metal cutter for cutting the floss.
In 1941, due to the demand for silk to make parachutes for World War II, the Company switched to nylon for its dental floss.
Though the packaging design has been modernized over the years, moving from metal to glass to plastic, the basic concept of most dental floss packaging is still the same as it was over 100 years ago – floss wound around a spool, with a small metal cutter on the package.
Early Pocket Dental Floss Package with Built-In Cutter
In the beginning of this post, I mentioned that there was a connection between Johnson & Johnson and duct tape. What was it? Stay tuned for a future post on that subject.