Thanks to advances in modern dental care, the number of adults who will need dentures over their lifetime is dwindling. For those who do, modern dental prosthetics are more comfortable and discreet than ever before. But what did our ancestors use? Read on to learn about the mythology and history of wooden teeth.
The History of Dentures
According to The History of Dentistry, dentures date all the way back to 2500 B.C., when they were made from animal teeth. Centuries later, the ancient Egyptians and the Etruscans fashioned dentures from bone, wire and repurposed animal and human teeth.
Wood teeth have not been nearly as popular throughout history, though wooden dentures were common in Japan from the 16thcentury to the start of the 20th century, according to The History of Dentistry. During the 18th century, typical denture materials in Europe and the U.S. included both 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
Former President George Washington is one of the most famous persons known to have used wooden teeth. Except for the fact that he didn't, according to Mount Vernon Museum. Washington had oral health issues that robbed him of his natural teeth and required dentures. They were made of materials such as ivory, gold and lead, but not wood.
So where did the wooden teeth myth come from? Historians theorize that Washington's ivory dentures became stained over time. The staining effect resulted in a wooden appearance, leading to the false belief that he had wooden teeth (a 1798 letter to Washington from his dentists references the need to clean his dentures to remove stains that resulted from wine consumption). Over his lifetime, he had several sets of dentures, only one of which survives today.
Some of Washington's teeth also came from a grislier source. It was not uncommon for destitute people in the 1700s to sell a few of their teeth, says the BBC.
A few decades after Washington's lifetime, the demand for dentures had grown so great in Europe that dentists' suppliers were turning to grave robbing, according to the BBC. Dentistry in the early 1800s was unregulated and even dangerous, but rampant sugar consumption meant that people who could afford it turned to barbers, doctors, jewelers and even blacksmiths for tooth extractions.
In 1815, enterprising tooth hunters turned to the thousands of corpses left from the Battle of Waterloo for a fresh supply, says the BBC. Looters sorted teeth to make attractive matched sets for sale, and early dental professionals boiled and shaped them to fit ivory dental plates. Luckily, by 1832 the British Anatomy Act made it illegal to transport human bodies, and the popularity of human dentures began to steadily decline.
Preventing Dentures Altogether
Today, we know that preventing tooth decay in the first place is preferable to a full set of dentures — no matter what they're made of. Practicing good oral hygiene by brushing twice a day and flossing daily can help prevent decay and the need for tooth extractions.
For people who do wear full or partial dentures, having them made to fit by a trained dentist ensures that they will be as comfortable and natural looking as possible. Before inserting your dentures, says the American Dental Association (ADA), use a soft-bristled toothbrush to clean your gums, tongue and the roof of your mouth. Rinse your dentures to wash off any leftover food particles, and use that same soft-bristled brush along with a non-abrasive cleanser to clean them. This will prevent them from getting scratched while maintaining their color. That way, no one will mistakenly think you have wooden teeth just like George Washington — even though he didn't!