Oral & Vision Health Blog

What Was The Deal With Wooden Teeth? A Quick History of Dentures.

Most people have heard some iteration of the story about George Washington’s wooden teeth. But if you didn’t know – that myth has long been busted. Our first president, along with most of the founding fathers (and basically everyone who lived in the 18th century) didn’t have proper dental care and hygiene by modern standards. That meant that many of them were missing their teeth. But, despite the popular urban legend, wooden teeth weren’t the most common answer to tooth loss during the founding fathers’ time. Here’s the real, far more interesting story, of wooden teeth and the dentures of the 18th century.

Wooden Teeth – Fact and Fiction

While George Washington probably didn’t have wooden dentures – they DID really exist historically. But for the most part, they were on the other side of the world. Most records of wooden dentures come from Japan, dating back to the 16th century. However, wooden dentures weren’t the common option in the western world. Dentures made out of ivory, animal teeth, and even human teeth were more prevalent during George Washington’s time – and he had dentures made from all of these materials. In fact, the use of human teeth and animal teeth for dentures dates all the way back to the Etruscans in the 7th century BCE, where early dentists fixed them into people’s mouth with gold wire. Human teeth, animal teeth and ivory are significantly more durable long-term than wood, so where they were available, they were a much more common material for dentures.

Selling Your Teeth?

So, if human teeth were a common material for dentures, where did dentists get them? Human teeth used for dentures were sourced through a variety of avenues, from slaves and off battlefields to local graverobbers. But a big source of teeth for dentures throughout history was actually tooth sales. You heard that right. Dentists would buy teeth from people to fit for dentures. But why the heck would anyone sell their teeth?

Well, there’s actually a long history of people, particularly the poor, selling their teeth that goes back to the middle ages. Wealthy people who lost their teeth or need extractions would pay for dentists of the time to purchase teeth from poor folks with healthy teeth to make dentures for them. This practice ended up being a way for artists and authors like Thomas Rowlandson and Victor Hugo to criticize the wealthy for their exploitation of the poor and the working class. Luckily, with the creation of modern dentistry came porcelain dentures, which put an abrupt end to dentures created by human teeth. And as a bonus, now we have the option for dental implants, too!

At first glance, the history of dentures can seem pretty gruesome, and it’s no surprise the “wooden teeth” myth became a stand in for animal and human dentures. But it also says a lot about the ingenuity and evolution of dentistry that even before modern dentistry and concepts of oral hygiene, early dentists were figuring out inventive ways to combat tooth loss. Speaking of tooth loss and dental problems, don’t be like the founding fathers – see your dentist regularly, get your cleanings, and keep up with your oral hygiene routine. And don’t forget about mouthwash either. It is a key part of your oral health routine. Did you know you can make it for FREE at home with some simple ingredients? Click the image below to learn how!

DIY mouthwash

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