While the 18th c. lady in our recent Horrible Histories video displayed a pretty horrible set of teeth for comic effect, missing teeth were no joke to many Georgian ladies and gentlemen. Primitive dental care and diseases like smallpox, malaria, and syphilis combined with diets heavy on sugar, sugary tea, and alcohol and light on fresh fruits and vegetables made for less than glorious smiles. Poets might sing of teeth like pearls, but the reality was likely much less attractive.
Probably the most famous sufferer of dental woes was first American president George Washington (1732-1799), who began losing his teeth while only twenty-two. Historical legend reports that he compensated by wearing clacking false teeth made of wood. But Washington was an affluent gentleman, and he could afford the best replacements then on the market. A pair of dentures that he ordered in 1798 (shown left) are an intricate construction of gold wire springs and teeth carved of hippopotamus ivory. These were the work of Dr. John Greenwood (1760-1819), a New York-based dentist who earned Washington's custom, and his gratitude, too. Though the dentures look dreadfully uncomfortable to modern eyes, they were apparently a great improvement over what Washington had been wearing.
The letters between the dentist and his presidential patient survive today (here they are on-line), and the advice that Greenwood offers regarding the care of the false teeth sounds surprisingly modern:
"The sett [of false teeth] that you sent me from Philadelphia which when I received was very black, occasioned either by your soaking them in port wine [then considered a common way to disinfect false teeth], or by your drinking it. Port wine being sower [sour], takes off all the polish, and [as an] Acid has a tendency to soften every kind of teeth and bone....Therefore it is very pernicious to the teeth. I advise you to either take them out after dinner and put them in clean water and put in another sett, or clean them with a brush and some chalk scraped fine, it will absorbe the acids which collects from the mouth and preserve them longer."
No word remains as to whether Washington took this advice or not. Still, it does add an interesting layer to the custom of gentlemen retiring from the ladies to drink their port in masculine peace, with the men not only unbuttoning a waistcoat button or two after a large meal, but also removing their teeth.
For more about Dr. Greenwood – a colorful 18th c. American in his own right – check out another of our fav blogs,Boston 1776, andherefor more about his role as Washington's dentist.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.