The Toothpick: Technology and Culture

How many pages can you fit on the point of a toothpick? Surprisingly enough, about 350 — but only if you’re the ingenious Henry Petroski, author of such entertaining and enlightening volumes as To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design and The Evolution of Useful Things. His new book employs the same deft and delightful attention to a simple object that he used with such success in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. This time, he whittles down his focus to a smaller and even humbler wooden implement, one that is “among the simplest of manufactured things.” Its story, however — in Petroski’s learned and witty hands, at least — is anything but simple. The author entertainingly traces the use, design, materials, manufacture, and cultural connotations of the handy utensil from the Rome of Nero to 16th-century Portugal (where industrious nuns created a local cottage industry), from 19th-century Cambridge, Massachusetts (where toothpick tycoon Charles Forster put Harvard men to work creating demand) to more recent years (when, in keeping with the industry’s enduring penchant for secrecy, Japanese visitors were denied entry to a Maine toothpick factory in order to protect “tricks of the trade”). “Because common things so easily transcend limits of time and place, their story is not readily confined to a single period or to a single culture,” Petroski writes. Crossing chronological, disciplinary, and geographical boundaries, Petroski’s engaging tale moves from anthropology to etiquette, from prehistoric Africa to the 1900 American presidential election, with remarkable aplomb. –