“Pick not thy teeth with thy knyfe, but take a stick, or some clean thyng, then doe you not offend” – Rhodes, 15th Century philosopher
In the 1950’s, 90% of the world’s toothpicks were manufactured out of Strong, Maine. 75 billion toothpicks per year were manufactured out of this small little town (~1,000 people). [Note: One good sized white birch tree can produce 4 million toothpicks] A majority of this output came from Forster Manufacturing, founded by Charles Forster. Let me tell you his incredible story and how he created the market for toothpicks.
Charles Forster was born in 1826 in Charlestown, MA. His uncle ran an import-export business and sent young Charles to Brazil. While in Brazil (1850) he noticed that the natives had beautiful teeth, which he believed were the result of the handmade toothpicks they used. He couldn’t get the toothpick idea out of his mind. At this time in history, gentlemen would carry big goose-quills in their coat pockets that were used as “toothpicks”. But the quills would constantly break in a person’s teeth. These handmade wooden toothpicks seemed like a much better idea.
Charles Forster sent a sample box of toothpicks from Brazil to his wife back home. She then gave it to a hotel. They liked them and ordered another box. Soon he was fulfilling orders of handmade toothpicks in different parts of the country. But he had visions of mass production.
He found and acquired a patent from an inventor named Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant [credited with mass production of shoes]. Shoe making at the time used many uniform wooden pegs. He used this patent to develop the machine to mass produce toothpicks.
“The original wooden toothpick man is said to be Charles Forster of Strong, Franklin County. He has done more for the teeth of America, it is said, than any other man under the sweep of her eagles’ wings. He whittled the original box of Yankee toothpicks, but he copied the art from natives of South America, where he was a merchant years ago. The South Americans picked their teeth with whittled-out splints. Forster sent a sample box to his wife … as a curiosity. A hotel man got hold of them and sent to Forster for a box …. More orders came, and he began to get busy. Pretty soon he had natives whittling out toothpicks for hotels all over the United States. He moved home … and in 1860 began making his toothpicks by machinery …. Now he sells 30,000 cases [containing 250,000 toothpicks each] a year. He is thought to make three-fifths of all the wooden toothpicks made in the country. With his primitive machinery a boy could grind out one toothpick at a time, while one operator can now turn out 15,000 a minute. He has sold $200,000 of them within the last two years. Twenty girls are kept busy every day packing them …. Forster is thought to have expended $50,000 on his patents in litigation … The past year he worked up 1,000 cords of birch and poplar. The National Toothpick Association, which controls the production of toothpicks as the Standard Oil Trust does petroleum, has contracted for enough toothpicks to be made in Maine the coming year to load a freight train of fifty cars.” — The [Bangor] Industrial Journal, August 5, 1887.
Charles Forster was a genius in marketing. The demand for toothpicks was growing but not fast enough now that he could mass produce toothpicks. A majority of people and establishments didn’t want to give up quill toothpicks. How would Forster combat the status quo?
He hired young, personable, and presentable people to go into stores asking for wood toothpicks. Most establishments would turn the young people away because they didn’t carry wooden toothpicks. Then Forster would enter these stores and easily sell them a box or two of toothpicks. He would then have the same young people go back into the stores and buy the toothpicks. When Forster would enter again the establishment would buy twice as many boxes, and fully believing in the product, the owner would market them to real customers.
Forster used a similar strategy to get wooden toothpicks into restaurants. He would hire Harvard men to demand wooden toothpicks at the end of their meal. When the Harvard men were told the restaurant didn’t have any wooden toothpicks the men would get angry and loud and tell the owner they would never return to a restaurant that didn’t have wooden toothpicks. When Forster would enter the restaurant the next day the restaurant owner would not only buy boxes of toothpicks but also hand them out to each table.
Now, the methods above were very smart, but the genius was he knew that if he could get higher end restaurants to carry his toothpicks (used by their wealthy patrons) it would only be a matter of time until it filtered down to the masses. He was right. Wealthy people were seen leaving the restaurants or standing on the streets with toothpicks in their mouths. The toothpick was a sign of social status. Soon younger people were seen with wooden toothpicks in their mouths and women were seen with them in their mouths. An article from the time said that half the people in the city streets could be seen with toothpicks.
He now had his market.
Over the decades that followed he would find ways to market toothpicks outside of conventional “picking teeth”. The toothpick would find uses across dozens of applications. Marketers describe this phenomenon a “usage drift” which helped grow the market even faster.
In 1900, there were approximately 12 manufacturers of toothpicks. By the 1990’s, only three remained. The manufacturing process was highly secretive as each of these three companies had their own customized machines. When three Japanese businessmen showed up unannounced, asking to tour the Forster Manufacturing facility, the plant manager stopped them at the door, greeted them kindly, and quickly walked them back to their taxi and back to Boston (150 miles away).
Forster Manufacturing was acquired in 1992. The company would close down in 2003, and so was the last toothpick produced in the town of Strong, Maine. The king of toothpicks no more.