On my toothbrush

Posted below is my response to an assignment for my Biological and Cultural Evolution class.

Assignment: pick an object (any bit of material culture) and trace as many cultural connections (e.g. where the object was made, the groups that use the product, the institutions formed to maintaining or repairing or exchanging the object, etc.) as you can. Please take care to describe the object as well as you can before describing all of the cultural ties. Keep it short.

The toothbrush. My particular toothbrush has the blue bristles in the center that are supposed to tell me to buy a new toothbrush after a few weeks. It has longer bristles at the top to clean those hard to reach places in my mouth. The handle is plastic with a green rubber grip.

My acquisition of this toothbrush is the result of a vast number of cultural events. Let's begin by asking the question, "Why have a toothbrush at all?" Our culture has certain values about oral hygiene. Some of these values have a biological basis: we are healthier if we have disease-free mouths. Others seem to be aesthetic: we prefer white teeth and minty-fresh breath. I assimilate these cultural values by being around other people with similar values. I mimic their behavior and brush my teeth.

The creation of the toothbrush is another interesting story. With millions of people wanting toothbrushes, an immense industrial infrastructure was created to supply them. This includes companies that supply the petroleum products to create the plastic handle, the industrial designers who modeled the toothbrush, the factory that manufactured it, and the transportation network that delivered it to my local convenience store.

Each of these steps in the creation of the toothbrush relied on many other cultural values and institutions. For example, the industrial designers had a particular way of working, a corporate culture, that guided their design of the toothbrush.

The third major facet culminating in the purchase of my particular toothbrush is marketing. While the creation of the toothbrush required many physical resources, marketing requires the dissemination of information to the consumer via communications media. That is to say, I watched television ads that coerced me to believe that toothbrushes with blue indicator strips and extended bristles would improve my quality of life. I deserve the luxury of a rubber grip. This communication infrastructure, which is a tremendous tool for spreading cultural memes, was integral in the acquisition of my toothbrush.

This is just scratching the surface of the cultural influences that affected my mundane purchase.

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