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Artifact: Toothbrush Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by David Bush, Heidelberg College, excavation director, Johnson's Island Prisoner of War Depot


Latrine, Johnson's Island Civil War Prison Hospital, Sandusky Bay, Lake Erie, Ohio

Bone, probably from a cow femur; bristles (missing), probably from a boar


Sometimes archaeology can speak as eloquently as the words of a diary or letter in expressing a prisoner-of-war's craving for the comforts of home. Take the case of a Confederate officer's toothbrush.

In late 1861, the Union chose Johnson's Island, Ohio, along the western shore of Lake Erie, as the site of a POW camp for captured Confederate officers. From April 1862 to September 1865, more than 10,000 men passed through the camp's housing units, mess hall, latrines, and hospital. The prisoners held at Johnson's Island endured harsh winters, food and fuel shortages, and disease, and as many as 300 never made it out alive. They, and those who survived, left behind a wealth of archaeological material that I have been excavating for the past 19 years (see

Along with physical discomforts and deprivations, the POWs experienced anguish over the well-being of their families and concern for their own futures. Keeping or restoring routines of daily life--establishing a sense of normalcy in the face of the unknown--is an important way to cope with stressful situations. So naturally the prisoners clung to any personal objects they were allowed to keep: a photograph, a harmonica, a pocket watch, and this elaborate toothbrush.

Every feature of the toothbrush had been made by hand, from the carving of the handle to the drilling of no fewer than 88 holes for the boar bristles, which were secured to the base with linen thread. Brushing teeth was not common during the mid-nineteenth century, and only elite members of society typically used toothbrushes. Such a fine example reflects the high status of the Confederate officer who owned it.

Found in a latrine, it was probably dropped by accident or fell out of a pocket rather than being deliberately discarded. Its discovery reminds us how POWs strove to maintain regular activities and pre-war standards of living even under--and perhaps in reaction to--the conditions of a Civil War prison camp.

Photos: Courtesy Dave Bush

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America