Hi there! Whether you use them to pick up an appetizer, test the doneness of a cake, or clean your teeth, these handy little devices are used world-wide. Of course I’m talking about toothpicks!
Once machine-made toothpicks became widely available in the mid-1800’s, the need for a “holder” arose, and before too long hundreds of toothpick holders in all sorts of colors and shapes came on the market. Collectors of these antiques refer to them simply as “toothpicks.”
History of the Toothpick
The use of bird quills, walrus whiskers, and hand-whittled toothpicks dates back thousands of years. After all, who doesn’t like to have clean teeth?
Through the ages, pocket industries of toothpick whittlers have popped up regularly. But from the 16th century through the Victorian period, wealthy men and women had access to reusable gold, silver, or ivory toothpicks that came with matching cases.
For a woman, the case might be attached to her “chatelaine” secured around her waist and for a man, on his watch fob.
The average man or woman on the street could never afford such a luxury. The quill, whisker, or whittled pick would have to do.
But in 1869 a wooden toothpick-making machine was invented and Charles Forster, a marketing genius, acquired rights to the patent.
As the story goes, he hired a group of Harvard students to eat at various restaurants. Upon finishing their meal, they’d ask for a toothpick and then complain loudly when they learned that the restaurant had none available.
Later Forster would drop by the restaurants and make a pitch for his toothpicks. Of course the owners, who’d been recently humiliated about having no guest toothpicks, would make a purchase, Slate.
If you’d like to dive even deeper into toothpick lore, consider Henry Petroski’s book on the topic, The Toothpick. Click the link to read the first chapter of the book.
History of the Toothpick Holder
Once machine-made toothpicks became widely available, it didn’t take long for glass and china manufacturers to add toothpick holders to their inventories.
Pressed & Cut Glass Toothpicks
Ultimately you could find pattern (pressed) and cut glass holders in every color of the rainbow and in various custom formulations like custard, opalescent, milk, and satin glass.
While most commonly found in short, cylindrical shapes, toothpicks came in many others–animals, boots, and vase shapes, for example, and in numerous patterns, including the hobnail, daisy & button, and moon & stars.
While you can generally find more glass toothpicks out in the wild, you should definitely keep a sharp eye out for ceramic examples too.
Companies that produced fine china noticed the popularity of glass toothpicks and jumped on the bandwagon later in the 19th century. Manufacturers in Germany and Eastern Europe, in particular, began producing delicate china examples.
Japanese companies entered the market in the 1950’s with all sorts of novelty shapes, some of which you’ll see below. And restaurantware examples entered the market at about the same time.
Why Collecting Toothpicks is Popular
Even when glassware in general grew less popular in the 2000’s, toothpicks tended to retain their value. Collectors love them, but why? Because of their:
- Small size (about 2″) means they take up less room
- Generally low cost
- Multiple styles, substances, colors, and manufacturers
- Functionality (see alternative uses below)
- Easiness to find out in the wild
- Wonderful charm
Collecting toothpicks is so popular, an active collecting group has formed, the National Toothpick Holder Collector’s Society, for anyone interested in diving deeper.
The Difference Between Toothpicks & Other Small Receptacles
You may be wondering how to tell the difference between toothpick holders, votive candle holders, and egg cups. Guess what? You’re not the only one!
Apparently, depending upon the need at any given time, manufacturers marketed the same pieces as having different functions. In other words, the same exact 2 1/4″ high “thingy” could be marketed one year as a toothpick, the next as an egg cup(!).
But here’s a test: If toothpicks when placed inside don’t stand a bit taller than the rim, it may be something else, perhaps a vase or shot glass.
Ultimately, the final test for any wannabe toothpick? Do the toothpicks stand up nicely when placed inside, or do they fall over? If so, perhaps the item is a salt cellar.
This chicken toothpick holder (or is it an egg cup?) is a good example of the conundrum. While it holds toothpicks perfectly (that’s what I use it for), it likewise nicely holds an egg. Ultimately, does the label really matter, LOL?
About Pattern Glass
All of the glass toothpicks that you’ll see in this article fall into the category of “pattern” or “pressed” glass. Let’s take a brief look at the background on this type of glass before we examine some examples.
A cheap cousin to earlier blown glass crystal, pressed glass was produced by machine; a mechanical plunger applied a layer of glass into cast iron molds to create patterned goblets, cake plates, bowls, pitchers, and more.
Researchers contend that during its heyday (1850-1910), glass companies produced over 3000 patterns! PatternGlass.com.
Typically, sets containing up to 100 various pieces would be produced in one pattern. Usually a toothpick holder could be counted among those pieces.
One thing to keep in mind when researching your toothpick holders: Glass companies sold their molds to other glass companies. Sometimes this happened over and over. As a result, it can be very difficult, if not impossible to determine a many toothpick makers.
Those with maker’s marks, or altered maker’s marks to denote a second company, make things simpler, but sometimes the second or third company down the line didn’t bother to remove or alter the original company’s maker mark(!).
Glass Toothpick Holder Examples
- Antique clear glass toothpick in the “Grated Diamond & Sunburst” pattern by Duncan & Sons (1895)
- Clear cut glass toothpick with a thistle design
- Clear pattern glass toothpick
- Antique green pressed glass toothpick in the “S-Repeat” pattern by Dugan Glass Co. (1930’s)
- Olive green pressed glass toothpick in the “Fan & Diamond” pattern by Westmoreland Glass Co. (1940-80)
- Aqua blue pattern glass toothpick in a star type pattern (1960’s+)
- Aqua blue pattern glass toothpick in the “Daisy & Button” pattern
- Aqua blue pattern glass toothpick in the “Eagle & Stars” pattern by Kanawha Glass Co. (1976)
- White milk glass toothpick in the “Hobnail” pattern by Fenton (1950’s)
- White milk glass toothpick in the “Daisy & Button” pattern by L.G. Wright Glass Co. (1937-1999)
- Amberina pattern glass toothpick in the “Eagle & Stars” pattern by Kanawha Glass Co. (1976)
- Amber pattern glass toothpick in the “Mirror” or “Galway” pattern by Dugan Glass Co.
- Amberina pattern glass toothpick in the “Hobnail” pattern
- Antique ruby-stained and hand painted pressed glass toothpick holder (1900-1910).
NOTE: Ruby stained toothpicks, like this one, were popular at the turn of the century as souvenirs. Typically the name of a city or important site would be engraved or painted on the ruby stain, often along with a date.
Ceramic Toothpick Holder Examples
- Pair of white ceramic, urn-shaped toothpicks marked Japan (1953-present).
NOTE: In my Member Library, you’ll find a PDF “cheat sheet” under “Collecting Guides” entitled “Modern Japanese Marks” that can help date them. Gain access to the library by SUBSCRIBING to my weekly newsletter.
- A restaurantware ceramic toothpick holder by Onondaga Pottery Co./Syracuse China Co. (1920-46)
- An unsigned ceramic donkey and cart toothpick holder (1960’s).
- Antique china toothpick with floral decoration marked “Silesia” (1900-20)
- Vintage ceramic harp-shaped toothpick holder marked “Japan” (1950’s-present)
NOTE: The Silesia crown over OH mark is attributed to the Ohme pottery company (1882-1930) located in the Silesia region of what is now Germany.
- Vintage ceramic Santa Claus toothpick marked “Japan” (1950’s-present)
- Vintage unmarked green ceramic swan-shaped toothpick (1970’s)
- Vintage unmarked ceramic horse and wagon toothpick (1980’s+)
Metal Toothpick Holder
- Vintage silver plated urn-shaped toothpick marked “Queens Art Pewter” (1930-2000)
NOTE: Queens Art Pewter was a Brooklyn pewter company that manufactured many colonial-style pieces. “Queens” refers to the borough of Queens in NYC. This silver plated piece dates closer to 2000 than 1930.
Where to Buy Toothpicks
Because toothpicks are so widely used for both dental and baking purposes, almost every home contains at least one, if not more. As a result, it’s not difficult to find them out in the wild, at garage and estate sales, thrift stores, and flea markets.
If you’re a regular vintage shopper (by that I mean once a week or more) then you should have not trouble finding a half dozen or more within a year.
If you shop less regularly, then expect to occasionally come across them at perhaps a rate of one or two per year.
Vintage & Antique Toothpick Values
The more common toothpicks that you’ve seen in the article have a retail value of $10 and $20. Some clear examples would fall on the lower end while rarer ones, like the amberina, would fall on the higher end.
Signed pieces, like the olive green diamond & fan toothpick with the W and G mark on the bottom (for Westmoreland Glass Co.) likewise clock in at a higher value.
In general, my recommendation is to spend only about a dollar (or less!) on toothpicks in order to maximize your profit. Clear glass examples, in particular will take slightly longer to sell than the colored variety, so for this reason I’d try to spend no more than 25-50 cents for them.
Do not buy ANY chipped, cracked, or crazed examples as they will sit around taking up valuable real estate in your booth. Collectors look for excellent to near perfect examples.
Where to Sell Vintage Toothpicks
In conducting research for this article, I learned that except for valuable rare examples, like vaseline or carnival glass, prices on eBay were lower that the prices I achieve from my antique booth. My guess is that prices would be at least slightly higher on Etsy as well.
So my recommendation would be to try selling them from your antique booth first (if you have one) and on Etsy next. In this way I think you’ll profit the most off of these little collectibles.
Vintage Toothpick Holder Uses
- Hold toothpicks(!)
- Contain succulents
- Hold children/grandchildren’s bouquets of dandelions, violets, and other small flowers
- Serve crudités (dollop of dip followed by julienne carrots, peppers, & cucumbers)
- Contain cotton swabs or bobby pins
I hope you enjoyed reading about this popular collectible and will consider (if you haven’t already) adding them to your inventory, whether for an antique booth or online antique business. As always, happy hunting!
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