Toothpicks are most often made of wood or bamboo but can also be found in plastic and, in some cultures, metal and bone. Toothpicks are primarily used to clean leftover food and plaque from the teeth and to spear appetizers and cocktail garnishes at social gatherings, but were a sign of social status in the 19th century, according to Slate.
The toothpick is the oldest dental cleaning tool known to man; Neanderthal skulls show signs of teeth that were picked by a tool, according to Wikipedia. The Romans used silver toothpicks, and jeweled toothpicks were common in the 17th century. Round and triangular toothpicks continue to be used in this way, and according to a study published in Oral Health & Preventive Dentistry, are equally proficient at removing dental plaque.
As Slate explains, mass-produced wooden toothpicks hit the market in the late 19th century. One marketer hired Harvard college students to ask for toothpicks at stationery stores and restaurants, refusing to patronize businesses that did not supply them. Toothpicks quickly became a status symbol, with people chewing on toothpicks after meals at fancy restaurants to show they could afford to eat at those restaurants.
Toothpicks used to spear appetizers are typically made of wood, bamboo or plastic, and those used to hold cocktail garnishes are usually made of plastic. Toothpicks used for this purpose are often topped with colored cellophane. In Portugal, according to Slate, hand-carved toothpicks made of orangewood are used for special occasions.