Skip to main content

The Whole Tooth and Nothing But the Tooth

Last week as I was sitting in my least favorite piece of furniture – a dentist’s chair – I couldn't help but reflect that if you (like me) are not a fan of going to the dentist now, you would've absolutely dreaded it during the Regency. 


Reporting pain in any tooth to a Regency-era dentist would most likely result in having the offending tooth pulled. And you needn't have worried about a dental hygienist scolding you for not flossing regularly, because there were no hygienists to coach you on preventative care. 

"The Toothpuller" probably painted by Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Dentists in the early 19th century dentists were often termed “tooth-pullers” or “tooth-drawers” because they yanked a lot of teeth. Once your decayed teeth were removed you could, if you had the money, get yourself a nice set of false teeth. Realistic-looking false teeth could be made from ivory or whalebone. (George Washington had several sets of false teeth and despite the myths, none of them were wooden.)

A more durable and expensive option was a denture made from real teeth, set in a base of ivory. Real teeth could be obtained from live donors who were willing to sell them for money, or more nefariously from dead ones who didn't get anything in return. 

A fragment of an old dentist's sign,
promising "painless (guaranteed)" extractions.
 I think the parentheses leaves room for doubt.
(Wikimedia Commons). 

During the Regency, the latter type of teeth were called “Waterloo teeth” since the teeth were often culled from soldiers as they lay dead on battlefields. Grave robbers (also known as resurrectionists or body snatchers) also provided an illegal supply of teeth. 

The need for false teeth could be avoided, of course, by proper preventative care, but that aspect of dentistry was in its infancy during the early 19th century. We can thank the doctors and dentists of this era for some advancements in dental care, including fillings (used in the early 1800s) and even flossing.

I'll bet these drops effectively eased pain, 
but I doubt they were a cure.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Levi Spear Parmly was an American doctor who practiced in England and France as well as the U.S., and in 1815 he advocated using silk thread to clean between teeth. Despite this innovation, cleaning teeth during the Regency often involved a toothpick or a primitive type of toothbrush, fashioned with hog hair and a stick.


Here's the Prince Regent himself (in caricature) using a fork to clean his teeth after a lavish meal:

©Trustees of the British Museum

Regency men and women did try to clean and whiten their teeth by using powders. This practice started with the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, who developed powders containing crushed bones, oyster shells, burnt eggshells or even ground oxen hooves. Though tooth powders became less abrasive as the centuries rolled on, modifications to make them milder (like using snail shells instead of oyster shells) didn't make them any more palatable.



Ad for "An Unrivalled Preparation for Cleansing,
Beautifying and Preserving the Teeth & Gums"
(Image from Boston Public Library, www.flickr.com)

By the end of the 18th century tooth powders contained baking soda and borax, which made the powders foamy. During the Regency era glycerin was added, making the powders more paste-like. However, it wasn't until the 1870s that toothpaste was put into jars and mass-produced. By the end of the century a Connecticut doctor had the idea of putting toothpaste into a collapsible tube, which is how most of use the product today.

(Wikimedia Commons)



So the next time you brush and floss your teeth think about the centuries of development that went into this routine. No matter how much you may hate going to the dentist, you can be glad you get to make an appointment with a 21st-century dentist instead of a 19th century tooth-puller.


Sources for this article include:



Comments

  1. Boy, AM I glad! Those sound like very painful times. Thanks for another fun article, Maureen! xo Jennifer

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am sooooo grossed out by the idea of having a dead person's teeth in my mouth! I'm glad that practice has gone by the wayside!

    - Momma Cat

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The end of the Holy Roman Empire, or what happens when the Empire doesn't strike back

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang  but a whimper T.S. Eliot wasn't actually describing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire when he wrote those words in his poem, “The Hollow Men.” Nonetheless, his words are an extremely apt way to describe the end of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended quietly with a stroke of a pen exactly 212 years ago in August of 1806. That’s when the last emperor decided it was his duty to abdicate, letting the ancient dominion under his protection dissolve rather than allow Napoleon to usurp the role of Holy Roman Emperor and everything that came with it. Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor By that August the end of the empire had become inevitable. Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 and his formation of the Confederation of the Rhine the following July (after he convinced 16 German princes to renounce their allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire and join him)

Macaroni Men and Yankee Doodles

The Spirit of '76  (original title Yankee Doodle ) by Archibald Willard, painted in the late 1800s November is a month that here in the United States is defined by food, culminating in a huge Thanksgiving Day feast. It's also the month we honor our military veterans. So I'm going to focus on both food and patriotism - especially an Italian pasta product that became synonymous with a controversial English fashion and developed uniquely American associations. "The Macaroni"- 1773 During the 18th century, it was all the rage for young men of the English nobility to take a trip through Europe to soak up its art and culture. It was called the Grand Tour. In Italy, these privileged lads discovered a pasta dish far removed from their usual British fare. It was called maccaroni , and they raved about it when they got back home. The travelers became known as the Macaroni Club, though there is no evidence an actual club ever existed. But it

The Cato Street Conspiracy

The Cato Street conspirators getting arrested Conspiracy and treason go hand in hand. Throughout history, conspirators have huddled in back rooms and dark corners in secret, concocting schemes that are both dangerous and illegal. So it’s no surprise that their plans often spiral out of control and end in disaster.  A good example of a conspiracy plot gone wrong happened during the Regency. It’s been dubbed the Cato Street Conspiracy because of where the conspirators were caught. This is a tale that, according to historian J.B. Priestley (author of The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency) “begins in absurdity and ends in horror.” The year was 1820. Though the Napoleonic Wars were over, Britain had paid a heavy price for its victory against the French. The costs of the war had strained the country’s economy. The working classes were hit hard by periods of famine, rising food prices due to the Corn Laws, and high unemployment, the latter driven by soldiers returning from th