History of Teeth – Roots and All

I visited my dentist recently and had an
interesting conversation (if a bit one-sided, as I had a mouthful of hardware
at the time) about teeth. Yes, we all grow a couple of sets naturally, but the
interesting part of our ‘chat’ was how false teeth came about.

A few toothy facts

Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in
the human body – and although they are hard, white and contain calcium, teeth
aren’t bones, and can’t heal or grow back if they suffer damage. Each tooth is
unique like fingerprints, and no two teeth are exactly the same. Even identical
twins don’t have identical teeth. The Egyptians are said to have been the first
to use toothpaste – a blend of rock salt, mint, iris flowers and pepper!

They say that three or more glasses of
fizzy sweetened drinks each day will cause more tooth decay, fillings and tooth
loss than anything else over a lifetime. (Sounds a bit extreme to me). And it
is said that you should replace your toothbrush after suffering flu, cold or
viral infections, as the viruses can hang out in the bristles.

Down to Dentures

Dentures apparently date all the way
back to 2500 BC when they were made from animal teeth. Centuries later, the
ancient Egyptians and the Etruscans made dentures from bone, wire, and
repurposed animal and human teeth.

Amazingly, wooden dentures were used and
were particularly common in Japan from the 16th century, but during the 18th
century, typical denture materials included human and animal teeth and ivory.
Hardened rubber became a popular base for porcelain teeth when it was developed
in the mid-1800s, and early plastics such as celluloid and Bakelite replaced it
soon after.

George Washington’s Chompers

There is a myth that former US President
George Washington had wooden teeth, but they were actually constructed of
human, and probably cow and horse teeth, ivory (probably elephant), lead-tin
alloy, copper alloy, and silver alloy. The human teeth may have come from a
rather grim source, as it wasn’t uncommon for impoverished people in the 1700s
to sell a few of their teeth for income. Historians speculated that the ivory
became so stained over time, they looked like wooden dentures. He had several
sets over his lifetime, and one set still survives today (who thought about
saving them I wonder?).

In time, more and more people in Europe
started wanting dentures, so they turned to grave robbing to find teeth.
Overall, dentistry in the early 1800s was broadly unregulated and sometimes
dangerous. As people began consuming a lot of sugar, they turned to barbers,
doctors, jewellers, and even blacksmiths to get their teeth pulled out. It is
said fairground dentistry was popular at one time, where anyone with toothache
could get their teeth pulled, and a drummer would be outside the tent allegedly
to ‘drum up’ business, when in fact it was to ‘drum out’ the screams of the
patients inside!

Waterloo Teeth

In 1815, gruesome tooth hunters turned
to casualties from the Battle of Waterloo for a fresh supply of teeth. Looters
sorted teeth to make sets for sale, and early dentists boiled and shaped them
to fit into ivory dental plates, but in 1832 the British Anatomy Act made it
unlawful to transport human bodies, and the popularity of human dentures began
to decline.

A funny fact – you’d be banished from
the dinner table if you had false teeth in Victorian England! Those with false
teeth during the 1800s ate privately before dinner table events and gatherings.
This was supposed to save those with false teeth from the embarrassment of
their teeth falling out while eating their food.

Now you know a little of the history of
dentures and how much we’ve advanced since the days of grave robbing and wooden
teeth. Interestingly, people have always been looking to replace their missing
teeth but as we know now, it’s much better to prevent the need for dentures
than to get them.

So, remember to keep your dentures (and
your own pearlies) bright and clean – that way, no one will mistakenly think
you have wooden teeth like George Washington.


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