While most people associate the logging industry in Maine with paper mills, the plentiful forests of Maine provided wood for many products, from yo-yos to cigar lighters. In fact, at one point, one Maine town supplied almost the entirety of the nation’s supply of toothpicks.
The tiny town of Strong, population 1,156, in Franklin County was the “toothpick capital of the world.” Though Strong’s hold on the toothpick industry eventually subsided, the story of ingenuity, invention and creative marketing is one to remember.
The history of toothpicks
Toothpicks are not a modern invention. Dental forensics suggest that Neanderthals used rudimentary toothpicking tools. Archaeological records show that some of the earliest civilizations, from ancient Greece and Rome to China, used ornate toothpicks carved from ivory, bone and silver. And the Old Testament of the Bible says that “one may take a splinter from the wood lying near him to clean his teeth.”
As Henry Petroski writes in “The Toothpick: Technology and Culture,” the earliest organized manufacturers of toothpicks were the nuns of the Mondego River valley in Portugal, who made toothpicks to sell alongside the sticky confections starting in the 16th century. Eventually, these toothpicks found their way to the Portuguese colony of Brazil.
It was there, according to the 1992 book “Strong, Maine ‘Incorporated 1801’: An Historical Account of the Sandy River Settlement,” compiled by Lewis Brackley and Charles Lisherness, where a Bostonian exporter’s agent named Charles Forster observed “native boys” with impressively beautiful teeth selling and using wooden toothpicks.
Forster saw an opportunity.
At that time, any self-respecting fastidious gentleman could purchase a toothpick made of bone, quill, ivory, gold or silver, but an inexpensive disposable wooden toothpick that you could buy instead of whittling yourself was unheard of. Unlike their hastily made hand-whittled counterparts, the mass-produced wooden toothpick would be of consistent shape and quality and available to the rich and poor alike.
The American toothpick
Forster’s idea was initially met with social derision from both ends of the class spectrum. Why pay for something you can make yourself? Why use a wooden toothpick when you could use a much finer tool?
“You had to have some means to own [toothpicks] generally,” Petroski said. “He had to develop a market for them because you could just take a splinter and use it as a toothpick but he wanted people to buy boxes of them [and] pay money for things you could find around the forest or around the house.”
Forster needed to create demand for his product through a cultural revolution.
According to Brackley and Lisherness, Forster would pay well-dressed young men to dine in classy Boston establishments and, upon finishing their meal, ask for a Forster’s wooden toothpick. The establishment wouldn’t have it and the young men would make a fuss and attract the attention of the manager. This would create the appearance of demand for the products. Forster organized a similar stunt in local shops, entering the store shortly after his actors stormed out and selling his wares wholesale.
“These kids working for Forster basically created the market by asking for them and chewing on them out in the street and lounging around,” Petroski said. “It became fashionable even for women to chew toothpicks.”
Forster’s toothpicks were handmade in Boston throughout the 1850s, but by 1860, he needed to figure out how to keep up with the growing demand. The technology to mass manufacture wooden toothpicks didn’t exist at the time, so Forster partnered with Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant, an inventor who specialized in shoe manufacturing. Together, they developed a process similar to that of mass producing shoe pegs — the wooden nail-shaped spikes that once held shoes together rather than stitching or glue — in order to mass produce toothpicks.
Brackley and Lisherness wrote that “in 1869, [Forster] finally succeeded in developing a machine that was able to produce as many toothpicks in a single minute as an individual in Portugal could whittle in a day.”
Forster partnered with mechanic Charles Freeman, who also had a background in shoe manufacturing, to perfect the toothpick design: round and pointed at both ends instead of flat as toothpicks often were at the time.
“[Forster] owned some of the most important patents,” Petroski said. “A lot of people were making toothpicks, but his were made with a special process that he patented and that’s what gave his company the advantage.”
Forster comes to Maine
Once Forster had his machines, he had to find suitable wood. He tried willow, but the wood was small, crooked and rare. He tried maple, but that had too much fiber and made for splintery toothpicks. Finally, he found white birch, which was pliable, odorless, didn’t splinter and worked perfectly with his machine.
That led him to Maine, where forests filled with white birch awaited.
Originally, Forster had the wood shipped from Maine, but as his operation expanded, he decided to move closer to his raw materials. In 1887, Forster opened his first toothpick mill in an old starch mill on Valley Brook in Strong.
Forster initially employed 20 men and 12 women at his factory operations to work 10 hours a day, six days a week. Production was seasonal, shutting down when the forest became muddy and wood was too difficult to procure due to lack of logging roads.
Forster’s plants made more than just toothpicks. According to Brackley and Lisherness, Forster’s also made cigar lighters called “loco-focos” from bundles of wood. For a time, a political party was known as the “loco-foco party” because cigar-smoking cronies of Boss Tweed in New York City’s Tammany Hall were lighting their cigars with this type of lighter.
By 1897, demand for Forster products was booming, so Forster purchased a J. W. Porter mill and property near the Strong railroad depot.
Forster died in 1901, but the company continued to grow. In the 1930s, the company expanded again and moved to year-round production. They purchased new plants in East Wilton, Philips and North Anson (though the factory in North Anson burned to the ground in 1947) to expand products to rolling pins, skewers, candy sticks, ice cream spoons, cocktail sticks and mustard paddles.
The toothpick boom
In World War II, American toothpicks were at their most popular. And Forster’s business was booming in other areas as well. The company, for instance, supplied tongue blades and applicators for the treatment of servicemen.
But competition was growing. Competitors sprang up throughout Maine, and even within Strong itself. Still, the town of Strong remained at the center of toothpick production, even emblazoning its fire engines with the words, “Toothpick Capital of the World.” At one point, an estimated 95 percent of toothpicks manufactured in the country were coming out of Strong’s mills, at a rate of 75 billion toothpicks per year.
Kathy and Roger Stanley, a married couple who grew up in and around Strong and still live there today, both worked at Forster’s during its heyday. Kathy Stanley worked on the ice cream spoon wrapping machine.
“It was a busy job,” she said. “There was a certain smell to it, that wood fiber smell. It was noisy. A lot of people who worked in the mill over the years had hearing trouble.”
Meanwhile, Roger Stanley, whose father and uncle worked at the mill, took a variety of jobs at Forster’s from the time he was 15 in the early 1960s and into the mid-1970s, including cleaning the dust house.
“When they fabricate these toothpicks, they run them through these machines called the rounders to sand them down and create points to pick your teeth with,” Roger Stanley said. “You have to be careful with dust. It’s highly flammable. Every weekend [it] had to be cleaned from the top to the bottom. We had to wear eye glasses and respirators. That was the dirtiest job in the mill [but] we had kind of a fraternity. I was an alumni of the dust house.”
Roger Stanley said that the mill was truly the social heart of the town in this time period.
“One thing that always struck me was a lot of people who went in an hour early to go in and visit and chat with colleagues and have a cup of coffee,” he said. “It was a social phenomenon. There was a big camaradiere. We liked the work and we were proud of the work.”
The Stanleys noted that at one point, Forster’s Manufacturing Co. employed more people than were employable in the town, providing jobs to surrounding areas.
“Even my mother and one of my aunts and even my grandmother who lived in New Sharon in the ’40s, the mill provided the bus and it would bring them up to Strong to work in the mill doing shift work,” Kathy Stanley said. “People would come in from the other towns. It was pretty booming for quite a while.”
The toothpick bust
The 1980s was the beginning of the toothpick’s fall from grace. Dental floss and other oral hygiene products were deemed better for your gums and cut into the toothpick market, as did cheaper toothpick imports from China and Southeast Asia.
“Like everything else, the Chinese do it cheaper,” Petroski said. “It was a no-brainer for a lot of people. They didn’t think that toothpicks had much of an intrinsic value. They’re just a throwaway item.”
Over time, picking one’s teeth at the table also became a social faux pas. In 1986, the famed “Dear Abby” column condemned public toothpick use, calling it “crude, inconsiderate, and a show of bad manners.”
The demand for toothpicks continued to drop precipitously by the 1990s, when only a few toothpick companies remained in America. As demand declined, Strong’s plants tried to innovate. The Forster firm invented toothpicks with square middles that prevented them rolling off the table, and continued to diversify the wood products it produced.
It wasn’t enough.
“In Maine, they diversified but almost exclusively within the wooden novelty items [like] toothpicks, clothespins [and other] very small stuff, all things replaced by cheaper counterparts coming out of China,” Petroski said. “I think that the toothpick industry in Maine relied too heavily on little products. There was a continuing decrease in demand and use for those kinds of things because they were replaced with plastic and other materials that function just as effectively.”
The Forster Manufacturing Company’s last mill closed in 2003. Today, the former toothpick capital of the world does not manufacture a single toothpick. In 2008, Geneva Wood Fuels bought the mill and now produces hardwood pellet fuel. It employs less than 20 people in raw material receiving and processing, pellet production, packaging and distribution, unlike the hundreds of people who were once employed at Forster’s.
“Strong kind of lost its soul in a sense,” Roger Stanley said. “We have kind of become a bedroom community. That changes things when people don’t work in the town. You don’t have personal connections.”
Like other mill towns in Maine, losing the toothpick factory in Strong has left a social, economic and cultural void in the town.
“The story of Strong is the story of 200 other towns in Maine,” Roger Stanley said. “We had a nice town. We still do, [but] our story is very much like other towns.”