Robert G. Collmer – A Collection of Toothpicks from The Winter’s Tale to Leviathan

A Collection of Toothpicks from The Winter's Tale to Leviathan1)

Robert G. Collmer

Published in Connotations Vol. 3.1 (1993/94)

In The Winter's Tale (4.4), Autolycus offers his services to assist the shepherd and the bumpkin−clown, who are carrying a bundle with the mantle, the jewel, and the letters to King Leontes that will prove Perdita to be, not a shepherdess by birth, but the lost daughter of the King and Hermione. Authenticating his familiarity with court circles, Autolycus calls attention−−in a sort of resume−−to his clothes (he has recently exchanged his rags for Florizel's garments), manner of walking ("my gait … the measure of the court"), perfume ("court−odour"), and, finally, superciliousness ("reflect I not on thy … court−contempt?"). When the shepherd remarks that, though his clothes are rich, Autolycus does not wear them well, his companion, the country bumpkin, explains away the problem of the clothes by saying that their fantastical appearance reveals the nobility of the wearer. Finally, the clown offers the telling proof that indeed Autolycus is "a great man," by the statement: "I know by the picking on's teeth" (4.4.753−54).2)

In three other Shakespeare plays references to a toothpick appear and in all instances a connotation beyond mere hygienic usefulness adheres. In King John Philip the Bastard ridicules a traveler who has "his toothpick at my worship's mess" (1.1.190). Though the Bastard, after the meal, lacking a toothpick, must suck his teeth and make small talk, the foppish "picked man of countries" can expatiate upon his familiarity with the world beyond. Obviously to possess a toothpick implied that a person had traveled outside England. In Much Ado about Nothing, Benedick, to escape the vituperative language of Beatrice−−"my Lady Tongue"−−offers to go anywhere in the world, even to secure for his master, Don Pedro, "a toothpicker … from the furthest inch of Asia" (2.1.250−51). A toothpick came from an exotic place. Parolles, in All's Well That Ends [→page 14] Well, tries to convince Helena to abandon her commitment to preserve her virginity, which he claims is out of date in contemporary society: "Virginity, like an old courtier, wears her cap out of fashion, richly suited but unsuitable, just like the brooch and the toothpick, which wear not now" (1.1.151−54). The toothpick, along with virginity and the brooch, according to Parolles, was going out of style. As we shall see, Parolles was a bit premature in announcing the demise of the toothpick, and he was incorrect about the vanishing of the brooch. The issue of the disappearance of virginity was more hoped for than assured by Parolles. And in the same play, the Countess of Rossillion and her servant, the clown, are discussing the Countess' son, Bertram, who, according to the clown, is a melancholy lord since "he will look upon his boot and sing; mend the ruff and sing; ask questions and sing; pick his teeth and sing" (3.2.6−8). Aristocrats owned toothpicks.

Andrew Gurr in his Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (1987) draws many generalizations about conduct in Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters from an obscure pamphlet published in 1642 in which the following story appears:

A tradesman's wife of the Exchange, one day when her husband was following some business in the city, desired him he would give her leave to go see a play; which she had not done in seven years. He bade her take his apprentice along with her, and go; but especially to have a care of her purse; which she warranted him she would. Sitting in a box, among some gallants and gallant wenches, and returning when the play was done, returned to her husband and told him she had lost her purse. 'Wife, (quoth he,) did I not
give you warning of it? How much money was there in it?' Quoth she, 'Truly, four pieces, six shillings and a silver tooth−picker.' Quoth her husband, 'Where did you put it?' 'Under my petticoat, between that and my smock.' 'What, (quoth he,) did you feel no body's hand there?' 'Yes, (quoth she,) I felt one's hand there, but I did not think he had come for that.'3)

Gurr could have noted that the wife's aspiration for gentility was reflected in her owning a silver toothpick.

This object is one of the tools employed by persons like Autolycus, who stand among archetypal rogues, confidence men, and picaros. Arthur F. Kinney has assembled examples of such characters from Tudor and Stuart times leaving open, however, the question of toothpicks.4) So has [→page 15] Richard Bjornson in The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction;5) however, Bjornson finds what he calls "clothes as image" in various novels, such as Lazarillo de Tormes, Guzman de Alfarache, Alonso, Gil Blas, and Roderick Random. In recent years due to de Saussure's theories in semiology, the tension between the signified and the signifier has been exploited and Roland Barthes, for example, has applied semiotics to clothing in The Fashion System.6) A semiological survey recently (1990) cited symbolic references to dress in some of Shakespeare's plays.7) The meanings for apparel in general, as well as, in particular, for buckle, cap, codpiece, crown, doublet, farthingale, garter, glove, gown, handkerchief, hat, hose, jerkin, livery, petticoat, placket, plume, purse, robe, scarf, sleeve, stocking, and suit were listed. The toothpick was not mentioned. Furthermore, in such a list as the one above, mere brief explanations for objects do not reveal the frequently dynamic alterations of meaning over a period of time. One has to place what is signified within the contemporaneous, evolving milieu.

Shakespeare's references to this accoutrement presuppose a cultural background which to a modern person is at best curious, at worst strange. The tracing of this object leads to recognizing its wide frequent employment in the dramas and writings by Shakespeare's contemporaries. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to reveal the intricacies of this object and the cultural and dramatic uses of it. The symbolism of the toothpick relates to the culture of the period; it does not obtrude a phallic interpretation, as proposed by one critic several years ago.8) No broad semiological diagram will be painted on the toothpick in my study.

The OED gives the first entry for "toothpick" in 1488 in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland: "Twa tuthpikis of gold with a chenge." The toothpicks probably hung from a chain. The alternative form, "picktooth," according to the OED, appeared in 1542 from the same records of a payment "For ane Pennare of silver to keip Pyke−teithe in, to the Kingis grace." A pennare is a toothpick−case.

But the toothpick had existed long before these dates.9) A team of anthropologists recently claimed that their researches among Neanderthal teeth in what was Yugoslavia revealed that tooth picking may represent "one of the oldest and most persistent forms of tool use in the human [→page 16] fossil record."10) Objects made of wood or metal to clean teeth have been identified in excavations of antiquities throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean areas. A specific reference to a feather−quill toothpick is given by Diodorus of Sicily (c. 40 B.C.), who tells the story about a Syracusan king, Agathocles, murdered in 289 B.C. as follows:

Now it was the king's habit after dinner always to clean his teeth with a quill. Having finished his wine, therefore, he asked Menon for the quill, and Menon gave him one that he had smeared with a putrefactive drug. The king, unaware of this, applied it rather vigorously and so brought it into contact with the gums all about his teeth. The first effect was a continuous pain, which grew daily more excruciating, and this was followed by an incurable gangrene everywhere near the teeth.11)

In the times of the Roman emperors, the toothpick was part of the boudoir of upper−class women and an object available in banquets among the elite.12) For some persons in classical times, it came to connote excessive attentiveness to one's toilet to the neglect of important moral and intellectual matters.13)

Its use persisted in some cultures; for instance, tradition will have it that, as Muhammad lay dying, he saw a toothpick in another person's hand, and, according to a witness, "the apostle looked at it in such a way that I knew that he wanted it, and when I asked him if he wanted me to give it him he said Yes; so I took it and chewed it for him to soften it and gave it to him. He rubbed his teeth with it more energetically than I had ever seen him rub before."14)

According to Leo Kanner, in Folklore of the Teeth, Omar Khayyam (died c. 1123) used to clean his teeth as he read the writings of Avicenna. Coming to a chapter entitled "On the One and the Many," and realizing that he was approaching the end of his life, he laid his gold toothpick on a page as a marker, called for an official to record his will, ate and drank no more, stood up, and died. He had no more need for his toothpick.15)

The employment of the toothpick vanished in much of Europe during the Middle Ages, but with the emergence of the Renaissance, possibly through contact with Muslim or Jewish influences or mimicking ancient manners, the toothpick returned.16)

[→page 17] As in classical times, it was associated with high social rank. Sir Thomas Elyot in his Dictionary (1538) seems to have this connotation in mind (see OED citation under "toothpick"), for in defining a type of stiff reed, "nitella," as "a toothe pike," he adds "sometyme it signifyeth elegancy in speche."17) The Lady Lisle in 1539 wrote to her husband:

My lord, I send unto you my toothpicker; I thought to have given it to the Palsgrave whilst he was here, but it was not then at my hand. I beseech you present it to him if it be your pleasure. I send it to him because, when he was here, I did see him wear a pen [feather] or call [reed, from Greek <kálamos>] to pick his teeth with. And I pray you shew him it have been mine this seven years.18)

The palsgrave may have worn the instrument around his neck on a chain, as other wealthy persons wore the toothpick as a pendant. Erasmus implied objection to the excessive attention a person might pay to his or her toilet by including in his adages the cautionary proverb Lentiscum mandere ("Munching mastic").19)

Having a toothpick seemed identified with certain nationalities. John Lyly in the prologue to his play Mydas (1592) lists items for dining with different groups: "Enquire at ordinaries, there must be sallads for the Italian: picktooths for the Spaniard: pots for the Germane: pottage for the Englishman."20) When in 1968 divers found the wreckage of the Spanish galleon Girona, which had formed one of the great ships of the Spanish Armada but which had foundered on the Irish coast in 1588 (with the loss of almost all of its 1,300 men), an object retrieved was an elegant gold toothpick that probably belonged to one of the noblemen.21) In John Fletcher's comedy The Wild−Goose Chase (1622), Mirabel, described in the dramatis personae as a "travelled monsieur," despises the stay−at−home Englishman ("There's nothing good or handsome bred amongst us: ⁄ Till we are travelled, and live abroad, we are coxcombs") but praises the Italians:

Their very pick−teeth speak more man than we do,
And season of more salt!22)

Thomas Overbury, in his character of "An Affectate Traveller," asserted that "his pick−tooth is a maine part of his behaviour."23)


[→page 18] Often in Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605; 1615) toothpicks are mentioned−−sometimes in sybaritic circumstances. Thus, in Book IV Don Quixote enjoys an imaginary rhapsody: "And after that dinner is ended, and the tables taken away, the knight to remain leaning on a chair, and perhaps picking of his teeth, as the custom is, and on a sudden to enter at the hall door another much more beautiful damsel than any of the former."24) Frequently, however, the toothpick belies the impecuniousness of its owner. So the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli comments on the hunger of the fallen well−born, "making his toothpicker an hypocrite, with which he comes to the street−door picking his teeth, though he have nothing eat that should require such cleanliness."25)

Of course, it was not exclusively a Spanish or Italian object. Rabelais described Gargantua's dinner, "[a]fter which Gargantua picked his teeth with a fragment of mastic, washed his hands and daubed his eyes with cool clear water, and, instead of saying grace, sang the glory of God in noble hymns, composed in praise of divine bounty and munificence."26)

Mastic, that is, the wood of the mastic or lentisk tree, was particularly valued for its aromatic resin; as far back as Roman times toothpicks had been formed from it. Exudation from it was used by Turks and other Middle Easterners as chewing gum. Its name derives from the Latin word for "chew," giving the English "masticate."27) This is the paradox of Agamemnon's reference to "rank Thersites" who, when he "opes his mastic jaws ⁄ We shall hear music, wit, and oracle" (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.73−74).

But to return to England. Thomas Dekker in The Gull's Hornbook (1609) offers instructions for gallants, impoverished or wealthy, primarily the former. In walking around St. Paul's churchyard, the pretender should comport himself in order to create an aura of prosperity in purse and familiarity of person with great ones. The clothes and accoutrements are important:

After dinner you may appear again, having translated yourself out of your English cloth cloak into a light Turkey grogram, if you have that happiness of shifting; and then be seen, for a turn or two, to correct your teeth with some quill or silver instrument, and to cleanse your gums with a wrought hankercher: it skills not whether you dined, or no−−that's best known to your stomach−−or [→page 19] in what place you dined; though it were with cheese of your own mother's making, in your chamber or study.28)

Deftly handling the toothpick became parallel with dining with Duke Humphrey.

Satires and comedies particularly featured this object. In Lyly's Sappho and Phao (1584) Molus, the servant to a scholar, and Criticus, the servant to a courtier, are discussing Molus' aversion to the spartan fare required during Lent. None of the acceptable food fits Molus' constitution; he likes a fancier diet. Criticus finally recommends that "if your silken throate can swallow no packthred, you must picke your teeth, and play with your trencher."29) Thomas Nashe's only surviving satirical masque, A Pleasant Comedie, called Summers last will and Testament (1593), reports Will Summer−−a sort of Elizabethan Bart Simpson (a cartoon figure popular in modern America)−−decrying schoolwork:

Here, before all this companie, I professe my selfe an open enemy to Inke and paper … Syntaxis and Prosodia, you are tormenters of wit, & good for nothing
but to get a schoole−master two pence a weeke. Hang copies; flye out, phrase books; let pennes be turnd to picktooths: bowles, cards, & dice, you are the true liberal sciences; Ile ne're be Goosequil, gentlemen, while I liue.30)

Writing quills, which lead to philosophy, should be changed into toothpicks, which lead to food.

Dekker's If It Be Not Good the Diuel is in it (1612) contains a scene where a friar, Alphege, is instructing a junior novice in a priory about properly setting a table: "So: the Lord Priors napkin here, there the Subpriors: his knife and case of pick−tooths thus: as for the couent [convent], let them licke their fingers in stead of wiping, and suck their teeth in steede of picking."31) In the "pecking order" of the priory, there is a "picking order" as well.

Ben Jonson, more than any other contemporary of Shakespeare's, referred to the toothpick and related devices. In Cynthia's Revels (1600) Amorphus is described as "a traveller, one so made out of the mixture and shreds of forms that himself is truly deformed. He walks most commonly with a clove, or picktooth in his mouth, he is the very mint of compliment, all his behaviours are printed, his face is another volume [→page 20] of essays; and his beard an Aristarchus."32) He is like the traveler ridiculed by the Bastard in King John. And in the above−named Jonson play, at the beginning, Cupid upbraids Mercury, traditionally a thief, by invoking: "pray Jove the perfumed courtiers keep their casting−bottles, picktooths, and shuttlecocks from you."33) Like Autolycus, courtiers carried toothpicks.

In Volpone (1606) Politique Would−Bee and Peregrine are in Venice discussing events back in England, specifically the death of a spy by the name of Stone. This spy relayed information through secret signals even while sitting in a tavern, as Politique claims:

… I haue obseru'd him, at your publique ordinarie,
Take his aduertisement, from a traueller
(A conceal'd states−man) in a trencher of meat:
And, instantly, before the meale was done,
Conuey an answere in a tooth−pick … .34)

A code lay in how the toothpick was handled. In The Silent Woman (1609), a pompous knight, Sir John Daw, swears "By this pick−tooth" to assume the air of a melancholy aristocrat.35) The echo of Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well occurs−−the picking of the teeth and the cultivating of melancholy as among the manners of a nobleman. In Every Man out of His Humour (printed 1616, though supposedly acted in 1599), the courtier Fastidius Brisk is described as follows:

Oh, fine courtier! How comely he bows him in his courtesy! How full he hits a woman between the lips when he kisses! How upright he sits at the table! How daintily he carves! How sweetly he talks, and tells news of this lord and of that lady! How cleanly he wipes his spoon, at every spoonful of any white meat he eats, and what a neat case of picktooths he carries about him still!36)

In The Diuell Is an Asse (acted in 1616) Jonson attacked "undertakers," the courtiers who secured special rights to control the distribution of commodities, an abuse particularly prevalent during the reign of James I. In such a project described by Merecraft to Lady Tailbush and Mistress Eitherside, the following exchange appears:

Tai. Ha' you a business about toothpicks?
Mer. Yes, madam. [→page 21]
Did I ne'er tell 't you? I meant to have offered it
Your ladyship, on the perfecting the patent.
Tai. How is't!
Mer.     For serving the whole state with toothpicks;
(Somewhat an intricate business to discourse) but−−
I show how much the subject is abused,
First, in that one commodity? Then what diseases,
And putrefactions in the gums are bred
By those are made of adulterate and false wood?
My plot for reformation of these follows.
To have all toothpicks brought unto an office,
There sealed; and such as counterfeit 'em mulcted.
And last, for venting 'em to have a book
Printed to teach their use, which every child
Shall have throughout the kingdom that can read,
And learn to pick his teeth by. Which beginning
Early to practise, with some rules,
Of never sleeping with the mouth open, chewing
Some grains of mastic, will preserve the breath
Pure, and so free from taint.37)

The toothpick by the time of this play had become an article so familiar as to evoke humor for a projector to hope to gain the monopoly for producing it and to publish a book about handling it as a means of increasing sales.

A curious object related to the toothpick sometimes was mentioned, namely, an earpick or earpicker or earscoop. As far back as the Roman era, an earpick was a hygienic device used with the toothpick. Sometimes an instrument was shaped on one end as a toothpick and the other end as an earpick. In the Epigrams of Martial (Book XIV, 22, 23), a saying about dentiscalpium (toothpick) is followed by one on auriscalpium (earpick).38) In Gervase Markham and William Sampson's The True Tragedy of Herod and Antipater (printed 1622) Herod's barber, Tryphon, enamored of a married woman, Salumith, extols:

Tooth−pick, deare tooth−picke; eare−pick, both of you
Have beene her sweet companions; with the one
I've seene her pick her white teeth; with the other
Wriggle so finely worme−like in her eare;
That I have wisht, with envy, (pardon me)
[→page 22] I had beene made of your condition:
But tis too great a blessing.39)

The earpick could carry the meaning of an informer or spy. Dekker's (?) The Noble Spanish Soldier (1634) provides an example. The soldier Baltazar wishes to speak with the King but is rebuffed by the officious barber−courtier Cockadillio, as the following dialogue reveals:


Signeor is the King at leisure?

Cockadillio.       To doe what?
Baltazar. To heare a Souldier speake.
Cockadillio.       I am no eare−picker

To sound his hearing that way.

Baltazar.       Are you of Court, Sir?
Cockadillio. Yes, the Kings Barber.
Baltazar.       That's his eare−picker.40)

An earpick, earpicker, and earwig could be the same person. Though the toothpick moved from its aristocratic exclusiveness to general use−−in the twentieth century descending to almost an emblem of the low life−−it attracted some old−fashioned respect. C. V. Wedgwood in A Coffin for King Charles noted that Charles I, in appreciation for the respectful treatment he had received from the Parliamentarian Colonel Tomlinson, bequeathed to him his small gold toothpick and case.41) That the king cherished the toothpick reflects the practices of the aristocratic tradition from which Charles had descended.

Generally, however, the toothpick was losing prestige by the middle of the seventeenth century. Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) classified its use among insignificant manners−−"as how one man should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of the Small Moralls."42) Ornate toothpicks and cases would continue to be produced, but the connotation with aristocracy was vanishing.

Autolycus arrived in the play at the right moment−−"this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive" (4.4.673−74). He came with his toothpick in his mouth−−at the right cultural convergence of object and meaning. The fate of the symbolic toothpick from Shakespeare's dependence upon [→page 23] it until its near−banishment in Hobbes' work reveals the fluidity of signified and signifier. As semiologists remind us, all objects, whether in nature or from human creation, are constantly being transformed in meaning.

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