How Did Cowboys Brush Their Teeth In The Wild West?

You could make the argument that cowboys had no excuse not to brush their teeth, because there's evidence that toothbrushing, or at least something resembling tooth brushing, appeared back in the days of the Babylonian Empire, about 5,000 years ago. On the other hand, it's a safe bet that most cowboys — who sometimes preferred the less derisive term "herders," — probably weren't up on their history of Babylonian personal hygiene. 

Something like toothpaste seems to have appeared during the days of Ancient Egypt. The Library of Congress tells us that Europe saw tooth cleaning with some kind of implement become more and more common in the 17th century; England saw the manufacturing of toothbrushes in the 18th century, but they didn't really become anything close to common in the United States until the late 19th century, well into the waning days of the trail drive.

Cowboy teeth did not look this good

The fact is, by most accounts, tooth brushing didn't become a common practice for anyone in the U.S., let alone someone who spent his days crooning "Git Along, Little Dogies," until after World War I. The state of tooth decay among recruits for that conflict was actually considered a public health menace. says regular, twice-a-day tooth cleaning wasn't accepted standard health practice until it was brought back home by soldiers in World War II, who'd been indoctrinated in the practice. Besides, toothbrushes with nylon bristles weren't mass-produced until 1938 — before that, toothbrushes often utilized boar bristles. And the first electric toothbrush didn't show up until 1960.

There was something resembling toothpaste (though it contained soap; or possibly chalk) made in the U.S. in the early 19th century, but toothpaste in a tube didn't show up until 1873 — the same year Colt introduced the .45 Peacemaker. Coincidence? Probably. But as for cowboys brushing their teeth — remember that they tended to be less than well educated, poor, and plain busy — the short answer is that they probably didn't. 

As True West Magazine's Marshall Trimble, state historian for Arizona writes: "...nearly everyone had rotten teeth, or their choppers were stained by tobacco or coffee (which may explain why most folks didn't smile in period photos)." To make matters worse, in the rare event that there was a toothbrush around, it would have been a "community toothbrush, which hung in stagecoach stations and other public eating places. This was "shared by anybody who felt compelled to clean his or her teeth." It seems that when it came to brushing in the Old West, it was a wash.