Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.




Part of American manufacturing passes into history.

When a real-estate developer read about my interest in the history of wooden-toothpick manufacturing in Maine, he informed me that he had bought the old Forster Mfg. Co. toothpick plant in Wilton. All of its machinery was in place, and he was thinking of starting it up again. He told me I was welcome to visit and look around.

This was a rare opportunity, because wooden toothpicks are no longer made in the United States. Even when they were, it was not common for an outsider to be able to visit a factory, lest trade secrets be compromised.

I took a rain check until the summer, when I would be in Maine. One sunny Saturday morning in mid-July, my wife and I drove over to the western part of the state. It was there that white birch once grew in abundance and where the first toothpick mill was established around 1870.

We arrived at the plant at the appointed time, but no one was there to let us in. I had been told that this could happen, because it was haying season, so it might be difficult for anyone to get away from the farm. But I was also assured that eventually someone would come to unlock the door for us.

As we waited, I walked around the outside of the complex, which had clearly been added to as the business grew. Unfortunately, there appeared to have been no maintenance performed for quite some time. The red paint was peeling off the clapboards, and most of the windows had been broken. It was a sad reminder of what once must have been a proud place of employment for a hundred or so local folk.

Soon the caretaker’s brother-in-law came and unlocked the door, which was almost hidden behind high grass and weeds. Though he may have had the physical key to the place, he knew nothing about its history. He just let us in and told us to lock up when we were finished.

The corridor before us was dark, and one of our flashlights had weak batteries, so we walked carefully around the water and mud on the floor. When we entered the large, open room where printing was done, it was clear that no machinery remained. There were only damp and moldy stacks of printed pasteboard boxes and cartons, uncut and unfolded and never to be filled with the wooden toothpicks and plastic forks they advertised.

We walked up a back stairway, observing the wood and iron construction details in the stairwell, and came out into another large room. Its floor was littered with broken window glass and smashed fluorescent tubes. Papers scattered about proved to be old invoices, which showed that just a decade or so earlier, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of toothpicks and plastic utensils were being shipped to supermarket chains across the country. I was told I could take some souvenirs from the building, but there was little that was not damp or dirty.

Visitors to a once proud toothpick factory find broken windows, peeling paint, dampness, and dirt.

I should have known that the building’s contents had been cleared out, for the real-estate developer had told me that he had abandoned his earlier plans for making toothpicks in Maine and was having the structure disassembled. He figured that he could make more money on his investment by selling the wood and metal as recycled materials to be incorporated into new green buildings. The developers of those buildings may get credit for saving energy by reusing these materials, but it will be at the expense of a part of history that was considered too costly to restore to its former glory.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His book about the rise and fall of an American industry, The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, was recently issued in paperback.




© Copyright 2009
American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
Telephone: (202) 331-3500