Saturday, November 03, 2007

Pg. 69: Henry Petroski's "The Toothpick"

The current feature at the Page 69 Test: Henry Petroski's The Toothpick: Technology and Culture.

About the book, from the publisher:
Like The Pencil, Henry Petroski’s The Toothpick is a celebration of a humble yet elegant device. As old as mankind and as universal as eating, this useful and ubiquitous tool finally gets its due in this wide-ranging and compulsively readable book. Here is the unexpected story of the simplest of implements — whether made of grass, gold, quill, or wood — a story of engineering and design, of culture and class, and a lesson in how to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Petroski takes us back to ancient Rome, where the emperor Nero makes his entrance into a banquet hall with a silver toothpick in his mouth; and to a more recent time in Spain, where a young seƱorita uses the delicately pointed instrument to protect her virtue from someone trying to steal a kiss. He introduces us to Charles Forster, a nineteenth-century Bostonian and father of the American toothpick industry, who hires Harvard students to demand toothpicks in area restaurants — thereby making their availability in eating establishments as expected as condiments.

And Petroski takes us inside the surprisingly secretive toothpick-manufacturing industry, in which one small town’s factories can turn out 200 million wooden toothpicks a day using methods that, except for computer controls, haven’t changed much in almost 150 years. He also explores a treasure trove of the toothpick’s unintended uses and perils, from sandwiches to martinis and beyond.

With an engineer’s eye for detail and a poet’s flair for language, Petroski has earned his reputation as a writer who explains our world — from the tallest buildings to the lowliest toothpick — to us.
Among the early praise for The Toothpick:
"[A] book that offers rare insights into principles of engineering and design, as well as the oddly inspiring story of one man's quixotic mission to put a toothpick in every American's mouth."
--Joshua Glenn, Washington Post

"'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."
--Publishers Weekly

"[D]elightful.... As he has demonstrated in earlier books, such as "The Pencil," Mr. Petroski is skilled at extracting large facts from little objects. To this end he draws on literature from Ovid and Pliny, Rabelais and Cervantes, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, down to Letitia Baldridge. He consults old newspapers, patents and archival documents. His wonderful illustrations range from exquisite hand-carved Portuguese toothpicks to diagrams of goose quills, with several fascinating plans of early equipment for the mass production of toothpicks, some as loony as they are ingenious."
--Eric Ormsby, New York Sun
Read an excerpt from The Toothpick and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic professor of civil engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of a dozen books on engineering and design.

Read Petroski's recent Slate essay about Charles Forster, the marketing genius who brought us the toothpick.

Listen to Andrea Seabrook's NPR interview with Petroski.

The Page 69 Test: The Toothpick.

--Marshal Zeringue