Toothpaste in tubes: May 22, 1892

Acting on a suggestion from his son who, while studying in Paris, had seen artists using paint squeezed from metal tubes, Connecticut dentist Washington Sheffield, finds a way to do the same thing with toothpaste.  His innovation of packing toothpaste into collapsible tubes not only was more efficient—a person could squeeze out only as much as he or she needed—and kept the toothpaste from drying out, but it also was much more hygienic—previously toothpaste had come in porcelain jars into which all the members of a household dipped their brushes.

By 1896, Colgate had copied Sheffield’s invention, and toothpaste in lead tubes became available around the country. A later version of Sheffield’s tube came with a “compression key” at the bottom that allowed a person to evenly squeeze out the toothpaste and kept the tube from becoming “lumpy and unhandy,” as his print ads noted.

Sheffield is often credited with having invented toothpaste almost 40 years earlier, when he was in his  early 20s.  Dating back to the Egyptians, all kinds of things had been used to help keep teeth clean, from crushed oyster shells and bones to burnt bread and powdered flowers to powders made of salt and baking soda in the early 19th century. Soap was added to the mix in the 1820s and chalk became an ingredient in the 1850s.  It was about that time the Sheffield created a cleaning paste that he shared with his patients.  He called it Dr. Sheffield’s Crème Dentifrice and by the 1870s he was selling it commercially.  At about the same time Colgate began mass-producing sweet-smelling toothpaste sold in a jar.

Another new ingredient, fluoride, which was found to help prevent tooth decay, was first added to toothpaste in 1914, but it wasn’t really promoted as an asset until the iconic “Look Ma, No Cavities” advertising campaign was used to launch a new toothpaste called Crest in the 1950s.

Toothpaste tubes didn’t change much during the first third of the 20th century—they were still made of a lead and tin alloy, with the inside coated with wax. But there was some evidence that the lead could leach into the toothpaste and when, during World War II, all lead and tin was restricted to military use, the tubes were converted to a combination of aluminum, paper and plastic.  (Another impact of World War II:  Tooth-brushing wasn’t really a daily practice in the United States until returning American soldiers brought the Army-enforced habit back with them.)

The tubes eventually became all-plastic and continue to reign supreme as a toothpaste dispenser, although in 1984, toothpaste pumps—which originated in Germany—came on to the U.S. market. The pumps never really caught on with many people, although there now are high-tech models that, when activated by a motion sensor, pump a pre-set amount of toothpaste directly on to your brush.

Meanwhile, the company that Washington Sheffield started so long ago is still in business in New London, Connecticut. It’s now known as Sheffield Pharmaceuticals.

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