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The Toothpick: Technology and Culture Paperback – November 4, 2008

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The Toothpick: Technology and Culture + The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are + Invention by Design; How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The toothpick is not just among the simplest of manufactured things, Petroski explains, but one of the oldest: Grooves on fossilized teeth suggest that early hominids might have regularly applied small sticks or even blades of grass to the spaces between their teeth. With his usual flair for combining technical expertise and cultural acumen, Petroski (The Pencil) presents nearly every toothpick in the historical record. No incident seems too small to escape his notice, from the Qur'an's endorsement of using toothpicks before praying to Sherwood Anderson's death by a still-skewered martini olive. The narrative eventually closes in on Charles Forster, the entrepreneur who introduced the mass manufacture of toothpicks to Maine and created an American industry; the battle over the Forster estate led to a mildly melodramatic family squabble. Petroski occasionally offers a first-person perspective, describing the unpleasant feel of a bamboo pick or confessing that sometimes he'll resort to a mechanical pencil. Although some readers may feel he pushes the limits of the history of ordinary objects genre, there's still enough intriguing detail, even in the minute evolutions of toothpick etiquette, to keep readers engaged. Photos and illus. throughout. (Oct. 17)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Offers rare insights into principles of engineering and design."
The Washington Post Book World

“Delightful . . . Mr. Petroski combines historical narrative with technical expertise to compelling affect.”
New York Sun

"I'll never look at a toothpick in the same way."
—Jeri Krentz, The Charlotte Observer

“Petroski writes . . . with the observant eye of an engineer and the imaginative heart of a novelist.”
Los Angeles Times

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (November 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030727943X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307279439
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,366,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. The author of more than a dozen previous books, he lives in Durham, North Carolina, and Arrowsic, Maine.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on December 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
"Surely I cannot have read a 400 page book about the toothpick!" was my feeling when I set down Henry Petroski's _The Toothpick: Technology and Culture_ (Knopf). But the pages slipped by, each with its details about "History's Splendid Splinter". Actually, that is the title of a fictitious journal of supposedly scholarly essays on all aspects of the toothpick, and it is funny to think of scholarship expended on such a teensy tool. Petroski's book is no joke, though he is a amusing writer. He is a professor of civil engineering and of history, and likes to write about small manufactured things to reveal larger themes, as he did in a previous book, _The Pencil_. It is hard to imagine that he has left anything out, including toothpicks in history and pre-history, toothpicks in fiction, toothpick etiquette through the ages, toothpicks and global trade, and plenty more. Why has he lit upon the toothpick? Petroski says it is a common wooden object, the simplest of manufactured things, has no moving parts, needs no maintenance, is universally available, and it performs a function humans really need. He writes, "Nothing can be more annoying than having a piece of food stuck between our teeth." Sucking on the object will often do little, the tongue can't grab, and fingers are too blunt to get leverage; the toothpick is the specific tool for the specific job. It can, of course, probe into other small spaces if you are, say, cleaning a tiny figurine, and it does a splendid job of holding sandwiches together or giving a handle to an olive (Petroski's witty author photo shows him in a tux, holding an toothpick so accessorized). Generally, though, this is a history of picks for teeth.

They weren't always wood.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Harry Eagar VINE VOICE on January 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The toothpick would seem to be just about the last word in minimalism of both design and material, but Duke University engineering professor Henry Petroski has counted about 500 patents designed to complexify it.
There is, of course, more to this than meets the eye. Petroski practically invented the popular book designed to explain not only how objects are engineered but why. Toothpicks, in their apparent simplicity, did not just appear unbidden, any more than the lead pencil, to which Petroski gave the 400-page treatment earlier.
"The close study of anything as both an object and an idea is potentially intellectually rewarding and revealing about the technology and culture in which it is embedded," he writes.
It is recorded, for example, that a century ago a country girl in Maine -- home of the machine-made toothpick -- who packed the boxes of picks slipped a note into at least one of them inviting a gentleman to write her, and that a gentleman did, and that he traveled from St. Louis to Maine to see her.
What came of that, history does not record, but Petroski supposes, no doubt correctly, that more than one girl did the same. Boys and girls will be boys and girls, whether they have access to MySpace and Facebook or only toothpick boxes.
Though I have for a long time been a fan of Petroski's writing, it has to be admitted that "The Toothpick" does not have the romance of "The Pencil" or the heartstopping drama of his best book, "To Engineer is Human," which is about falling bridges and similar disasters.
Still, as always with Petroski, there are scores and hundreds of factoids that make you think.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Gary M. Olson on February 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I am a long-time Petroski fan, owning all of his books and having read with great joy almost all of them. He has a knack for taking an ordinary, everyday object (pencil, paper clip, bookshelf, ....) and finding the stories that make for a fascinating socio-technical history. This book is no exception. He even expresses his own surprise, in that his original plan was to write a chapter on the toothpick for another book, but then discovering that he had so much material that he would have to set that chapter aside and eventually do an entire book.

Interestingly, the toothpick story is a quintessential story of American ingenuity and inventiveness, business practices (both good and bad), regional advantages (Maine is the centerpiece of this story), and evolution in a changing world. There is early crisis during the first decades of the twentieth century, there is flowering and enormous diversification mid-century as woodcraft is turned to a variety of other products (Popsicles is one nice story), and ultimately, late twentieth century uprooting due to globalization (most toothpicks now come from China).

What is so fun about Petroski's books is that he looks at a simple thing like a toothpick from so many perspectives. The toothpick as a cause of death (swallowing them, or putting them in orifices where they don't belong). Toothpick as goat of the dental profession. The toothpick industry in its environmental niches. The rise and fall and rise and fall of the toothpick as a social phenomenon (is it OK to use one in public? this is a constant theme in the book). Toothpick as a source of literature (often pretty bad, but entertaining).

Petroski shows that much of the available history of the toothpick (on the web, in the Congressional Record, ...) is just plain wrong.
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