Romancing the Toothpick
All you ever wanted to know about finger food - and then some.
There's nothing ironic about The Toothpick: Technology and Culture (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York; hardcover; 464 pages; $27.95). It's really all about toothpicks, and it's written by a totally serious guy: Henry Petroski, professor of history and civil engineering at Duke, part-year Mainer, and prolific author of (among other titles) The Pencil. Yet dipping into the book I had to smile.
The Toothpick takes me back to my days as a smart-mouthed teenager, when my freshman science teacher, one Ms. Llewellyn, ordered me to write a thousand-word essay on the uses of the word "right." I earned this assignment by my habit of answering any and all teachers' questions with that word - which, though overtly agreeable, can be extremely annoying when delivered with a drawn-out vowel by a fourteen year old and accompanied by a rolling of the eyes.
Meant as punishment, the essay turned out to be fun. "Right" was ripe territory, replete with meanings and associations, some of which - like the right to free speech - proved handy in mounting an argument that the rap against "right" was downright wrong. Et cetera.
So then: consider the toothpick.
Professor Petroski acknowledges the unpromising nature of his subject in a genial prologue: "The plain wooden toothpick, it may be argued, is among the simplest of manufactured things." But quickly he warms to the task, invoking Archimedes' lever (Give me a toothpick long enough . . . ) and boldly declaring: "The story of the toothpick is the story of Everyone and Everything at Everytime."
Fortunately, it's not. The story of the toothpick is largely the story of two Mainers, one a rough-hewn native and the other a smooth-talking adopted son.
Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant was born in Norridgewock in 1833. Painful family circumstances forced him to take a job cutting shoe pegs for a local cobbler at age six. This proved fateful: by his mid-twenties, Sturtevant had won a series of patents for machinery to automate this aspect of shoemaking. Soon he was running specialized mills in western Maine, turning out tiny, precision-made wooden pegs by the trainload.
Enter a second iconic character: Charles Forster, scion of an old-money Massachusetts family who adapted Sturtevant's technology to the making of toothpicks. No one quite knows why. "As with virtually every aspect of the life of Charles Forster," Petroski notes, "there are alternative versions of how and why he was to get so involved with wooden toothpicks." What's certain is that by the late 1800s, Forster had transformed the town of Strong, Maine, just north of Farmington, into the Toothpick Capital of the World, racked up a modest personal fortune, founded an ill-starred dynasty, and taken up residence on Park Avenue in Portland. In the process, he'd nudged the practical art of toothpick design and manufacture to a state of near perfection.
Moving to Maine, for Forster, was a matter of going where the wood was - in this case, white birch. This locally ubiquitous species "worked perfectly" in Sturtevant's machines. Its pliable wood was preferable to splintery hardwoods like maple, yet stronger and more workable than willow. If harvested and milled during winter dormancy, it dried to an even pale color that would look good indefinitely. Hence the rise of the "birch belt": a thirty-mile stretch of Maine woods that, by the early twentieth century, accounted for three-quarters of the world's toothpick production.
Making the product, of course, was only half the problem. Forster still needed to sell it. And here his story - an all-American blend of chutzpah, ingenuity, doggedness, and litigation - has proven especially hard to nail down. There's a legend, for instance, that he paid Harvard students to patronize restaurants where they'd clamor for toothpicks after the meal. Another account has him dispatching shills to besiege retailers with the same request - conveniently followed by a salesman ready to meet this sudden demand. It's a good, rousing yarn, devolving after the founder's death into a soap opera of contesting claims to his legacy.
If The Toothpick was merely The Forsyte Saga, it might make a colorful hundred-page addition to the Maine history shelf. But its ambition is more grandiose, ranging over the globe and throughout history, encompassing everything from snippets of anthropology to detailed explications of industrial design. This will surely fascinate some readers. Others may remember school assignments for which they amassed hundreds of little index cards, then had to fight the urge to use every single one of them. Richard Grant
Mainer Martha Tod Dudman tackles the difficulty of midlife romance and the painful emotions of a breakup in her new novel, Black Olives (Simon & Schuster, New York; hardcover; 180 pages; $23), set in a small town Down East. The author of the memoirs Expecting to Fly and Augusta, Gone (which was adapted into a Lifetime Television movie), Dudman uses the techniques of memoir to portray her protagonist's struggle to let go of her unresolved relationship.
- By: Richard Grant