Ask the Past: toothpaste

I am trying to cut down on packaging at home, and I've been looking for an alternative to buying tubes of toothpaste. Can you recommend anything?

Toothpaste has been around since the mid 19th century, and toothpaste in a tube has been around nearly as long (the first toothpaste in a tube was invented in 1892), but if you're looking for a more environmentally friendly option, you can't go past tooth powder. There are a lot of different recipes for tooth powder, but if you'd like to start with something simple, here's a hint from the 30 April 1881 edition of the NZ Herald:

That charcoal powder is good for polishing knives without destroying the blades. It is also a good tooth powder when finely pulverised.

Something similar but a little more elaborate can be found in the 22 August 1884 edition of the NZ Mail:

A very safe and efficient tooth powder can be made by mixing 1/2 oz. of Peruvian bark with 1/2 oz. of powdered myrrh and 1 oz. of powdered charcoal.

If you're not convinced that any old charcoal will do the job for your teeth, or if you want something a little more pleasantly flavoured, here's a recipe from Mrs Beeton's Household Management (1907)

Reduce to a very fine charcoal 2 1/2 ozs. of areca nut, and pound as finely as possible another 1/2 oz. in its raw state, then mix with 1 oz. of finely powdered cuttlefish bone, and flavour with cloves or cassia according to taste.

And finally, if you want a really fancy tooth powder, the following two recipes come from The White House Cookbook (1887). Firstly, a suitably classy sounding recipe for Pearl Tooth Powder:

PREPARED chalk half a pound, powdered myrrh two ounces; camphor two drachms, orris root, powdered, two ounces; moisten the camphor with alcohol and mix well together.

And if tooth powder alone isn't getting your teeth clean enough, here's their recommended preparation for removing tartar from the teeth:

THIS preparation is used by dentists. Pure muriatic acid one ounce, water one ounce, honey two ounces, mix thoroughly. Take a tooth-brush, and wet it freely with this preparation, and briskly rub the black teeth, and in a moment's time they will be perfectly white; then immediately wash out the mouth well with water, that the acid may not act on the enamel of the teeth. This should be done only occasionally.

Do be careful, though, when choosing your tooth powder ingredients. Here's a cautionary tale (in a column headed "Scientific Gossip", so you'll have to judge for yourself how reliable you think it is) from the 29 September 1880 edition of the Lyttleton Times:

A druggist’s journal in Alsace-Lorraine draws attention to the "explosive" medicaments employed in that country; a tonic is composed of hypophosphite of lime, chlorate of potash, and lactate of iron. The chlorate has the property to provoke appetite, but the rapidity which the chlorate parts with its oxygen, and the readiness with which the hypophosphite becomes a phosphate, produce much heat, and acting on the lactate, generate a gas as explosive as that from gunpowder. A topic consisting of the same chlorate, glycerine, and perchloride of iron, exploded in the pocket of a patient; the chlorate and cashoo formed a tooth powder, which exploded in the mouth, by the rubbing of the brush; oxyde of silver pills, often prescribed in England for chronic affections of the stomach, took fire in the pocket of another patient. 

I'm sure that will help.

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