I visited my dentist recently and had an interesting conversation (if a bit one-sided, as I had a mouthful of hardware at the time) about teeth. Yes, we all grow a couple of sets naturally, but the interesting part of our ‘chat’ was how false teeth came about.

A few toothy facts

Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the human body – and although they are hard, white and contain calcium, teeth aren’t bones, and can’t heal or grow back if they suffer damage. Each tooth is unique like fingerprints, and no two teeth are exactly the same. Even identical twins don’t have identical teeth. The Egyptians are said to have been the first to use toothpaste – a blend of rock salt, mint, iris flowers and pepper!

They say that three or more glasses of fizzy sweetened drinks each day will cause more tooth decay, fillings and tooth loss than anything else over a lifetime. (Sounds a bit extreme to me). And it is said that you should replace your toothbrush after suffering flu, cold or viral infections, as the viruses can hang out in the bristles.

Down to Dentures

Dentures apparently date all the way back to 2500 BC when they were made from animal teeth. Centuries later, the ancient Egyptians and the Etruscans made dentures from bone, wire, and repurposed animal and human teeth.

Amazingly, wooden dentures were used and were particularly common in Japan from the 16th century, but during the 18th century, typical denture materials included 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

There is a myth that former US President George Washington had wooden teeth, but they were actually constructed of human, and probably cow and horse teeth, ivory (probably elephant), lead-tin alloy, copper alloy, and silver alloy. The human teeth may have come from a rather grim source, as it wasn’t uncommon for impoverished people in the 1700s to sell a few of their teeth for income. Historians speculated that the ivory became so stained over time, they looked like wooden dentures. He had several sets over his lifetime, and one set still survives today (who thought about saving them I wonder?).

In time, more and more people in Europe started wanting dentures, so they turned to grave robbing to find teeth. Overall, dentistry in the early 1800s was broadly unregulated and sometimes dangerous. As people began consuming a lot of sugar, they turned to barbers, doctors, jewellers, and even blacksmiths to get their teeth pulled out. It is said fairground dentistry was popular at one time, where anyone with toothache could get their teeth pulled, and a drummer would be outside the tent allegedly to ‘drum up’ business, when in fact it was to ‘drum out’ the screams of the patients inside!

Waterloo Teeth

In 1815, gruesome tooth hunters turned to casualties from the Battle of Waterloo for a fresh supply of teeth. Looters sorted teeth to make sets for sale, and early dentists boiled and shaped them to fit into ivory dental plates, but in 1832 the British Anatomy Act made it unlawful to transport human bodies, and the popularity of human dentures began to decline.

A funny fact - you'd be banished from the dinner table if you had false teeth in Victorian England! Those with false teeth during the 1800s ate privately before dinner table events and gatherings. This was supposed to save those with false teeth from the embarrassment of their teeth falling out while eating their food.

Now you know a little of the history of dentures and how much we've advanced since the days of grave robbing and wooden teeth. Interestingly, people have always been looking to replace their missing teeth but as we know now, it's much better to prevent the need for dentures than to get them.

So, remember to keep your dentures (and your own pearlies) bright and clean - that way, no one will mistakenly think you have wooden teeth like George Washington.