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Nothing but the Tooth(brush)



As Curatorial Assistant at the Museum, I have the great opportunity to delve deeply into the Museum’s historical collections. Let me tell you, every inquiry is an adventure and my research helps me put together pieces of the past and preserve our nation’s history.

Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of working with several museum collections.  I am always struck by the way the simplest things that many people take for granted can hold so much history and represent any number of stories, emotions and display human innovation. If I may, I would like to share one such example. 

If you are like me, your toothbrush generally sits next to your sink. You use it every day but rarely do you actually stop and really ponder your toothbrush (perhaps aside from when you are actively brushing or using it as a microphone to practice for your next presentation or karaoke night).

Did you know that versions of the toothbrush have been around since ancient times? When the toothbrush emerged as we know it today, it had bristles made of hog hair and was first mass produced in 1780 by William Addis. Lucky for us, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of synthetics gave us nylon which eventually replaced the prickly hog hair toothbrush bristles in the 1930s.[1] The Doctor West’s Miracle Toothbrush arrived on the oral hygiene scene in 1938.[2]

Here at the Museum, we do not have a toothbrush in the artifact collection, but that is not to say that it has been scrubbed from our historical memory. As a primarily digital-based museum, we focus on collecting the memories of the nation through stories and our collections abound with references to the toothbrush.

Being one of Canada’s busiest ports of entry for new immigrants between 1928 and 1971, Pier 21 saw people of many different walks of life pass through its doors. When they arrived, some were better off than others and the facility had many staff and volunteers on hand to provide support and supplies. 

Many of the histories that we have collected reference these volunteers. The packages they distributed, containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, candies, shaving cream and utensils (which many immigrants received after their official processing was completed) afforded new arrivals, like Nikolaos Braiannis who came to Canada in 1966, the welcome opportunity to freshen up after what could be a rough trans-Atlantic crossing.


Nikolaos Braiannis with his parents in Greece preparing to depart for Canada, 1965. Image courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.


For volunteer Adelaide Waghorne, the toothbrush will always act as a reminder of her work at the Pier in the early 1950s. As part of her regular duties, Adelaide was responsible for stuffing immigrant care packages. She recounts why one Thursday in particular was more exciting than usual:

“In the first place three boats came in—one should have gotten here yesterday. Two carried chiefly Italian and Greek [passengers] but the third, the General Taylor, had 95 Baptists on board, sponsored by the Baptist World Alliance. Mr. Kyle had sent for me to meet them, so he sorted them out and found their luggage and sent them to me. I just stayed in my booth and [they] came quite frequently. I was ‘snowed under.’ I shook hands and handed out parcels of facecloths and soap, toothbrushes and paste, combs, etc. to the ladies—and ties to the men—and papers, magazines and toys to the children. I was positively breathless by suppertime, but how those folks loved it and what marvelous handshakes they gave me. It was thrilling.”

Adelaide Maude Waghorn, Image courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, donated by June McBruney.


It is hard to believe but the toothbrush can also bring to mind some of the funnier moments in life. Dr. G. M. Novotny recounts a story about a fellow traveller during his immigration processing at Pier 21:

“We reached the Port of Halifax on the 26th of December, 1950 and happily set foot on the famous Pier 21 …each of us had been issued a suitcase by the IRO[3] prior to departure, but [this fellow] had accepted it despite having no worldly goods to put in it. To make it interesting, he pretended to have to struggle to carry it and lift it for inspection, only to reveal a solitary toothbrush as the sole contents. Unfortunately, the customs officials did not find it very amusing and the poor fellow, an ex-mailman, got a tongue-lashing.”

Another entertaining story comes from the Dull family. Tony Dull first met his wife-to-be in Toronto in 1959 but due to timing and circumstance they drifted apart. The couple reunited and were married in Holland in 1963, immigrating to Canada in 1964. At Pier 21, they encountered one lovely volunteer who did not know that Mr. Dull could speak English:

“[They]…welcomed us each with a small gray plastic bag with a drawstring and a note 'Welcome to Canada from the United Church, Canada.’ It contained a comb, toothbrush, paste and a soup for the long train journey to Toronto. The volunteers spoke slowly and deliberately to greet all those 'newcomers.' To which Tony replied: ‘Hey! Gee, thanks that’s just great!’ The volunteer was flabbergasted.”

So as you can see even the simplest of things can hold a multitude of memories and in this case some rather enjoyable ones. Do you have any happy memories relating to a toothbrush? Perhaps you have another story relating to immigrating to Canada that you would like to share? We would love to hear your thoughts!

  1. British Association of Clinical Dental Technology. “Origin of the Toothbrush author unknown: 2012,” BACDT Directory, (accessed  12 June 2012).
  2. Researchers, Science Reference Services. “Who invented the toothbrush and when was it invented?: August 23, 2012.” Library of Congress, (accessed 12 June 2012).
  3. International Relief Organization