Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Black Gum Toothbrush

I lingered a few days ago in front of the Black Gum tree that grows on our property. It is a very pretty tree, with glossy, deep green leaves. I suddenly remembered that in the “olden days” people made toothbrushes from Black Gum twigs – especially for the purpose of dipping snuff.

In order to get my facts correct, I contacted my source (mother). Yes, her mother-in-law and my paternal grandmother -- who was a snuff dipper – used a Black Gum twig to move the snuff from the box or can to her mouth.

Credit: villagecraftsmen.com

She also reported that older people used the twigs on occasion to clean their teeth, along with baking soda and salt.

Her oldest sister, born about 1902, was a snuff dipper and used the Black Gum twig. Another sister, who did not dip snuff, preferred the twigs as an aid for teeth cleaning well into her older years.

From what I can learn, early settlers to this area likely learned of the twig's usefulness from the Native Americans.  Twigs from Birch, Sassafras and Willow trees also could be used, but Black Gum made a firmer brush that could be used several times.

A twig about the size of a pencil was stripped of its bark and one end was chewed to form the brush.

This is just one of the many old Appalachian Folk Ways now lost in the mists of time.

Even when I was a child I remember that (usually) very old women dipped snuff and many men chewed tobacco – rather nasty habits both. Nevertheless, children (including me) would ask mothers to make up "play snuff” (cocoa and sugar) and we’d grab a twig and pretend we were dipping snuff.

Can you imagine a child being amused by such play today?

Wikipedia reports that snuff originated in the Americas and was in common use in Europe by the 17th century. By the 18th century, snuff had become the tobacco product of choice among the elite, prominent users including Napoleon, King George II's wife Queen Charlotte and Pope Benedict XIII. 

Vintage snuff box for sale on ebay for $15

The taking of snuff helped to distinguish the elite members of society from the common populace, which generally smoked its tobacco. It was also during the 18th century that an English doctor, John Hill, warned of the overuse of snuff, causing vulnerability to nasal cancers. The John Hill report is quoted to this day in some medical reports. Snuff's image as an aristocratic luxury attracted the first U.S. federal tax on tobacco, created in 1794.

Credit: dangerousminds.net
Snuff is still dipped today I suppose, but I don't know how prevalent the habit is. The only time I see it practiced is among baseball players! 

Now that I've shared more than you likely want to know about Black Gum toothbrushes, the next time you go camping and find you've forgotten your toothbrush, you can search for the nearest Black Gum tree!


  1. What an interesting post - it makes you realise how fortunate we are today to be able to use a purpose made toothbrush.
    The last time I saw anyone taking snuff was my grandfather- very strange stuff I thought as a child, but I wish I still had his little silver snuff box - now I am wondering where it went!!!

    1. I imagine that little silver snuff box would be worth a tidy sum. We are fortunate indeed; life has progressed at an amazing speed during the past 100 years.

  2. Always good to know where to find a toothbrush. I've never known anyone who used snuff. Interesting to read about it though.


    1. HaHa. I suppose most any twig would do when caught in a bind. Black Gum is long lasting, which is why I imagine the snuff dippers chose it.

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  4. Have seen this tree in Kew gardens,also planted in avenues in parklands,it has the most beautiful Autumn colours.Always wondered why it was called 'Black Gum'now you have solved the mystery all the way from its native country.

    1. The large, glossy and dark green leaves are among the most beautiful of tree leaves. Now I'm wondering where the tree "Sweet Gum" got ITS name. I have one of those so I think I'll go chew a twig to find out if it's indeed sweet!

  5. Great post! How I remember those black gum toothbrushes and snuff box that our grandmother had! I could never stand the smell of the snuff! But the cocoa and sugar Mother mixed for us was so much fun. I remember so well us pretending to dip the nasty stuff and thought it was such fun. I also remember Daddy cutting a black gum toothbrush and chewing on it. As you said, the black gum tree is really beautiful and the one in your yard is lovely.


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