After 36 years, 33 of them in West Seattle, Dr. Hilton Herrin retired from dentistry in July. He tended to generations of teeth on the city’s leftmost flank, but inside the living room of his 39th Avenue Southwest home on the day after his final appointment, betrays an imminent exit from the community. He and his wife, Julie, are off to a cabin on Whidbey Island. Downsizing—with one exception.
Around the corner, in a semicircular formation on a kitchen table, sit cases upon cases of toothpaste from around the globe. One red-and-white design from Russia’s Soviet Union days bears all the aesthetic charm of superglue. Another from Nepal, branded “Everest,” captures the nation’s tallest attraction. A Chilean variety pokes fun at a rabbit’s pronounced front incisors. And there’s even a clear tube from King County jail. “You can’t hide a shank in there,” Herrin notes.
While the dentist can’t claim a world-class collection of the oft-overlooked toiletry, he managed to amass toothpastes from about 60 countries before retirement. For decades he displayed this gooey mix in a glass case at his West Seattle Dental Center office. Patients would peek in and add to it, contributing mementos from their travels or homelands before others beat them to it.
Now the cases will occupy some shelf space at Herrin’s Whidbey Island abode. There they’ll serve as both a reminder of his patients’ diverse life experiences and as testament to an oddly unifying truth about oral hygiene: “Everybody in the world wants clean teeth.”
Toothpaste, so ingrained in our lives its history is almost invisible, dates back more than 5,000 years. Egyptians cobbled together a very organic cleansing powder before they were even using sticks to apply it. Ancient Greeks and Romans followed suit, and herbal varieties eventually took root in China. Today, most toothpastes are made of some type of soap (sodium lauryl sulfate, perhaps), a bit of grit (fine sand, anyone?), and then something, Herrin says, to give it a “good finish.”
The dentist speaks like a connoisseur because he’s spent nearly his entire adult life in the realm of oral health. As an undergrad at the University of Washington, he worked as a dental lab technician to help pay his way through school. He stuck around for his graduate degree, learning the ropes in the U District by treating patients from all over the world. Language barriers often presented a challenge; how could he put patients at ease while they were in that disorienting chair? Something visual, tactile, could help build that connection, maybe?
Shortly after moving to West Seattle to start a permanent practice, Herrin brought back a blue case of Elgydium, a French brand, from his honeymoon in Tahiti. Then he started making requests. “I would have a patient mention, ‘Well, we’re going to be going to Brazil…’” Herrin’s ears would perk up. “‘Could you pick me up a tube of toothpaste for my collection?’”
Eventually he didn’t have to ask. Patients wanted to contribute their own worldly findings. Over time, some started to see their backgrounds reflected in that case. Container ships would bring international workers—toothaches at sea still need remedying—who’d find their countries of origin on the shelf. In turn, Herrin would try to learn relevant bits of different languages, to connect with places he may never himself reach.
He’s stopped short of taste-testing different cultures’ paste, mind you, and he doesn’t have plans to crack open an Irish tube like it’s a 25-year-old scotch; toothpaste does in fact expire. “I think it’s probably dried up,” he says of the Soviet specimen.
In his everyday brushing routine, Herrin typically opts for a brand name, provided it’s been independently tested. He looks for an American Dental Association seal of approval on the label. But even a toothpaste collector must confess that the make and model isn’t all that significant in the grand scheme. It’s more about the enthusiasm of its owner. “The frequency of brushing is infinitely more important,” he says.
Spoken like a true, retired, dentist.