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Why Do Some Toothpicks Have Grooves? We Found Out

Toothpicks are among the most straightforward of items, but even they have functions hidden in plain sight.

three toothpicks on wooden table
Henry Phillips

Welcome to Further Details, a series dedicated to ubiquitous but overlooked elements hidden on your favorite products. This week: a simple post-meal implement's handy feature.

The toothpick doesn't need explanation. It's one of those items that's so simple, so ubiquitous that recognition of what it is and what you're supposed to use it for seems like innate knowledge. Even its name serves as an abridged instruction manual — use this to pick your teeth. But toothpicks aren't as dull as that; there are many stories to be told about them, including one regarding toothpicks with grooves that offer a somewhat secret function.

Grooved toothpicks, which are sometimes known as Japanese toothpicks, are not the most common type available. You probably won't find them in a dish at the host's station near the entryway of a restaurant — those are typically reserved for individually wrapped round variants. Another common type is the flat toothpick, and then there are plastic toothpicks, toothpicks for oral care and toothpicks with little umbrellas attached to their tops.

broken toothpick on wooden table
Henry Phillips

The most common example of the grooved Japanese toothpick, which is characterized by its blunt notched end, might be these flavored picks from Tea Tree Therapy. (They're available in mint and cinnamon flavors on Amazon and at many health food stores for a few bucks.) The grooves, which give this type of toothpick a decorative look, also act as a weak point — break off the end, and you have a small stand that you can use to prop up the pointy end so it doesn't contact the tabletop. (That means whether the pick or the table is dirty, sanitation remains.)

It's a simple, handy trick, just like the toothpick itself, and a fitting feature for flavored toothpicks designed for enjoyment as much as extracting popcorn kernels from your gums. You might pop one in while reading a book — such as The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, by Henry Petroski, which details the history of these little wooden skewers over more than 450 pages.

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