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Pioneering Oral Care

From its very beginning, Johnson & Johnson was a champion of oral care. Zonweiss (“white teeth” in German) Tooth Cream was the company’s original consumer product in 1886. Just a decade later, the first mass-produced dental floss was added to the Johnson & Johnson price list. Though these were consumer goods, they—like Johnson & Johnson medical supplies—were shaped by Joseph Lister’s sterile surgical methods. Both were antiseptic, designed with hygiene in mind, and equipped with instructions to forward the health and knowledge of their buyers.

Earlier tooth cleaners were made from powder and required the user to dip the brush into the container and then place it under water to activate.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Though floss had been around since the early 1800s, Johnson & Johnson’s version was the first affordable, mass-produced dental floss. It also included a built-in cutter to keep the product as sanitary as possible.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Seven years before Johnson & Johnson was founded in 1886, St. Louis doctor Joseph Lawrence formulated an antiseptic liquid he called “LISTERINE®.” Named for Joseph Lister, the product was marketed as a safe alternative to carbolic acid as a surgical disinfectant (used by Lister to keep operations sterile), since carbolic acid could prove lethal in large doses. Originally, LISTERINE® was marketed to treat a variety of ailments: dandruff, body odor, itchy insect bites, and cuts. It was not until 1895 that it was first sold to dentists.

LISTERINE® was sold in glass bottles until 1994.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

LISTERINE®, as well as Johnson & Johnson’s Zonweiss toothpaste and floss hit the market at a time when few Americans regularly cleaned their teeth. Elaborate toothpicks, carved from ivory or stone were the dental tool of choice among elites. But, most Americans relied on abrasive substances like coarse salt and even gunpowder to remove plaque, if they cleaned their teeth at all. With such limited oral care came big problems. Decay and tooth extractions were common and, when these troubles hit, few turned to professional dentists. Of the country’s limited dental force, only 15 percent had graduated from a formal dental school by 1870. Many Americans called upon blacksmiths and barbers to pull teeth. These procedures weren’t performed in sterile environments, making infections common.

In 1890, doctors outnumbered dentists six to one. Few dentists had professional clinics, some operated out of their own homes.

Image courtesy: Library of Congress

Johnson & Johnson worked to change Americans’ dental habits through the same innovative spirit it applied to its medical supplies. Unlike earlier tooth cleaning products, Zonweiss Toothpaste was a cream, not a powder, for easier application. It was originally sold in a glass jar with a tiny, cellulose spoon to allow direct application to the brush and to avoid the unsanitary practice of double-dipping. In 1889, Zonweiss’ packaging was reconceived as a squeezable tube, which further reduced the spread of germs. Within a decade, the company’s dental floss also hit the market. Floss was born directly from a surgical product: sterile, silk sutures. The suture manufacturing process produced economies of scale, allowing floss to be sold for less. In 1914, a spool of Johnson & Johnson floss cost merely 10 cents, just a fraction of a worker’s hourly wage.

Early advertisements doubled as instructions, showing potential consumers how to use the pioneering product.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

By the turn of the 20th century, a new culture of health was unfolding. As sterile surgery became common practice, and understanding of hygiene spread, Americans became voracious consumers of health products and information. First aid guides thrived, allowing readers to better care for their bodies and their teeth. As a result, societal standards began to change. Oral health and hygiene—fresh breath and sparkly, white teeth—slowly became the expectation. This new normal required improved habits and new products to match: toothpaste, dental floss, and mouthwash. By the 1910s, LISTERINE®’s odor-fighting powers were brought to the forefront. The product was rebranded as a mouthwash and deodorant.

The promotional Zonweiss clock centered around a detailed illustration of a figure demonstrating how to use the toothpaste. The product, itself, was quite literally front and center.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Advertising was instrumental in pushing this cultural shift forward. Early campaigns for Zonweiss dating from the 1880s focused on the product, itself. Original ads incorporated the toothpaste into poems and classic stories, yet it remained unpopular. Johnson & Johnson responded by manufacturing its first promotional product, distributing intricate Zonweiss clocks to pharmacists who sold the paste. In the early 20th century, ads for JOHNSON’S Toothpaste included testimonials and emphasized the science of oral care, with one 1922 ad proclaiming “Let science cleanse your teeth.”  Yet even these inventive strategies couldn’t convince Americans to buy toothpaste. So advertisers changed the game by transferring their focus to consumers, themselves. Campaigns played on Americans’—in particular, women’s—new fears of bad breath, less than white teeth and the social isolation they could cause. 

Despite these concerted efforts, product sales remained relatively low until the end of World War II, when most Americans began brushing their teeth every day. The conflict brought many young men under a regimented military routine, and within it was regular tooth brushing. Soldiers then took these habits home. Moreover, amidst the war, a shortage of silk for parachutes forced manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson to start producing floss from nylon, pushing its price down even further. In the 1950s, as consumer goods reached new heights, toothbrushes, including TEK toothbrushes from Johnson & Johnson, became popular.

Later advertisements, like this one from LISTERINE®, don’t even feature the product, it simply emphasized the social shame associated with not using it.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Johnson & Johnson’s early oral care products were ahead of their time and contributed to the emerging culture of health. Through pioneering, affordable supplies and accompanying instructions, the company taught Americans how to better care for their teeth. In 2006, LISTERINE® has joined the company and is among its most recognized brands. Today, more than a century after the Zonweiss tooth cream hit the market, 70 percent of Americans brush their pearly whites twice daily.



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