BY STEVE BATES
The following passage is excerpted from the foreword to Volume 1 of my eight-part history of dental floss, now available from Doubledeal Books in a deluxe, leather-bound edition for $999.
The earliest known recorded reference to dental floss dates to 351 BC, when Alexander the Great, then a five-year-old and known as Alexander the Mediocre, spotted an unusual plant growing on the banks of the Tigris River. The boy immediately recognized the remarkable properties of the plant, which extruded long strings that dangled lazily in the fast-flowing water.
Alexander harvested some of the plant’s seeds as well as the strings. The next spring, he planted the seeds in his mother’s garden and watched with delight as they grew tall and strong. However, some of the neighborhood boys taunted Alexander for this “unmanly” pursuit. This prompted many fist-fights and other turbulence, which helped shape the aggressive and downright nasty persuasion of the adult Alexander and made him into a hardened killer. Still, he had the best teeth on his block.
During the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries, many a soldier and religious pilgrim sought in vain for the source of the highly valued floss plant, whose origins had become lost in the foggy mists of thyme. Legend has it that three fortunate knights stumbled upon the riverside motherlode, for the trio were known to have exceedingly bright and fearsome teeth that shot laser-like beams of fire at their enemies.
During the 14th century, when the Plague ravished Europe, it became evident that only those who flossed regularly were spared the horrid disease. Alas, many annals of dental floss history failed to survive the Middle Ages. Vague rumors of hangings and assassinations employing floss were never confirmed nor disproved. However, the last of the Druids were said to have carved poems and prose honoring dental floss into the massive monoliths of Stonehenge in England. Historians are still trying to translate those minute markings for confirmation.
In modern times, the many innovative uses of floss have been well documented. For example, in 1998, when baseball slugger Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs during the regular season, he attributed his success to the heavy use of dental floss to hold together muscles, tendons and ligaments ravaged by the deleterious effects of steroids.
Today, some of the most popular and anemic fashion models have been photographed wearing evening dresses and swimsuits consisting solely of brightly colored strands of floss. Cutting-edge research centers on dental floss as a potential cure for some cancers, and it is considered a critical element in the production of an engine that could allow astronauts to fly faster than the speed of light.