The Whole Tooth and Nothing But the Tooth

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

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. 

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. 

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

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.

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,

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.

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:

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, except where otherwise noted


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

  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


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