The History of the Dental Floss

Levi Spear Parmly

Blog Highlights:

  • Archaeological findings have discovered that ancient human teeth had toothpick and dental floss grooves
  • A dentist in the 1800’s recommended flossing to help dislodge food debris in between teeth and to help people avoid disease
  • In 1882, the floss with a pocket thread carrier and cutter was invented
  • Flossing was not popular in the past because silk was too expensive
  • It was not until the floss with nylon fibers was developed that it became more accessible and popular

Recent archaeological discoveries have shown that dental floss and toothpick grooves can be seen on the teeth of prehistoric humans. And although some people might find it absurd, it is only practical to say that people have been trying to get food debris out since the beginning of our history.

Flossing was recognized as an important part of daily oral hygiene in the early 1800’s. In 1890, Levi Spear Parmly, a dentist from New Orleans, published a book called “A Practical Guide to the Management of the Teeth”.  In this book, the dentist recommended that people dislodge the irritating food debris by flossing using a waxed silk thread if the toothbrush is not able to remove it. The dentist also said in his book that this was the real source of disease.

This is why many historians give credit to Parmly for having invented the modern dental floss. But the first patent, however, was granted to Asahel M. Shurtleff in 1874 which featured a pocket thread carrier and a cutter that you can see in floss packages that are available today.  It wasn’t until 1882 that Shurtleff’s company began to manufacture unwaxed silk floss that one can use at home.

The arrival of the modern floss, however, was not a big hit. This was because personal dentistry was still in its infancy and the materials used to make the floss was too expensive. But after World War II, Dr. Charles C. Bass was able to create a nylon floss which was less expensive than silk floss. His contribution made flossing more common.

Modern floss is made from nylon and from other plastic fibers. There are a lot of varieties available today, you can buy floss that is flavored, waxed, unflavored, or unwaxed. You can also buy floss picks that will allow you to floss your teeth more easily.

Flossing is still recognized as a vital part of good dental health, as a matter of fact, the ADA still recommends that you floss your teeth daily. Studies have revealed however then only as much as 10% of Americans floss on a daily basis. Flossing is important for the prevention of bad breath, cavities, and gum disease.

So how do you floss? You need to pull and cut 18 inches of floss and wrap both ends gently on your middle fingers. Using your index fingers and thumbs, curve the floss against the side of the teeth to wipe the tooth below the gum line. This should be done several times as simply running the floss in between the teeth is not good enough. You should aim to wipe the sides of each tooth as much as possible using the floss.