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Colonial Dentistry

provided by: David DiGiallorenzo

For many people, going to the dentist is a bit nerve-wracking. Compared to a few centuries ago though, it’s a breeze! When people from Europe first moved to North America, their medical practices were quite crude. They had all sorts of theories about medicine and dentistry, most of which were based on myths, superstition, or theories that were not true. In this article, we’ll explore dental health and care in the Colonial era, and we’ll even visit one very famous dental patient: George Washington!

Terrible Teeth in Colonial Times

It was quite common for the early settlers to lose teeth early in their adult years. Why did this happen? When those people began to colonize America, the country was very new and strange to them. The climate, crops, and land were completely different compared to everything they had back in Europe. Imagine a family that once lived in London. Even in the 17th century, London was well-established, with scores of shops, tradesmen, buildings, laws, and so on. When that same family moved to America, they found that it was wild, untamed land. If they needed a house, they had to build it themselves! Even worse, they didn’t know much about American plants, so they mostly relied on corn for all of their meals. Since they weren’t getting enough nutrition, their health (including dental health) suffered drastically. They were so busy trying to live off the land and fend for themselves that most of the time they completely ignored their dental health! Later when people from Europe came to visit, they were horrified by the awful state of the colonists’ teeth.

Teeth Cleaning Routines of the Average Colonial Settler

The early colonists had little time for what they considered to be luxuries, and this included toothbrushes. Even worse, if you were a regular man and were known to brush your teeth, people might say you were girly! However, richer people could indulge themselves by visiting the barber, who would polish their teeth. In the case of poor people, they would simply wipe their teeth with tooth powder that was sprinkled on some cloth. With such poor dental care, it wasn’t long before most people complained of toothaches. Of course, there were several home remedies and fake potions that were sold in the name of curing a toothache. The apothecary (a pharmacy) was a slightly better option for finding herbal remedies. Since common people tended to be superstitious about dentists and doctors, they preferred to deal with their toothaches in another way: they would have it removed!

Toothaches and Tooth Removal in Colonial Times

Many people simply tried not to complain about their toothaches, but when the pain was too bad, they had no alternative but to remove it. Sometimes the blacksmith would be called upon to remove teeth, since he had access to various metal tools. There was also a method that people used to extract teeth themselves. It involved a tool called a tooth key or a dental key. It actually did look similar to a large metal key with a type of claw. The claw would be placed over the tooth and tightened. Then the person (or someone helping out) would turn the key to remove the tooth. This was a very rough method and since it usually involved inexperienced people with an indelicate tool, it typically ended up causing broken teeth or damaged jaws. Even worse, there was no anesthetic to help numb the pain. Ouch!

Where Might You Find a Colonial Dentist?

During the early years of colonialism, there weren’t any dentists in the settlers’ areas. It was more common for them to ask a blacksmith or barber to help remove a tooth. There were a few other people who would also help with dental care. This often included apothecaries, priests or teachers who had some medical training. There was a man named John Wesley who actually did pinpoint several dentistry practices that still hold true today. This included cleaning teeth after eating sugary foods, and avoiding tobacco since it stains and harms teeth. It was only by the end of the 18th century that early dental practitioners joined the settlers from Europe. Instead of having one main office in town, as our dentists do today, they would move from one spot to another.

George Washington and His Teeth

There are many myths that George Washington wore fake wooden teeth. Actually, this is quite untrue since wooden teeth might have caused a number of problems for him. There are many archived documents and letters that have helped historians to find out the truth about Washington’s teeth. For much of his life, George Washington tended to be ill. In addition to a number of sicknesses, he also had a good deal of toothaches.

Since the doctors of the time weren’t quite sure how to treat his constant toothaches, they simply prescribed the remedy that they thought would work best: mercurous chloride. What they might not have realized was that mercurous chloride actually destroys teeth rather than saves them. As a result, poor George Washington ended up losing each of his teeth even though he was quite careful to brush and use mouthwash every day. One of the things he used to clean his teeth was a toothpowder. Most toothpowders of the time were made of rough substances than inevitably wore down the tooth enamel. It was just another example of a remedy that caused more harm than good.

For several years, Washington went through a series of toothaches that were usually dealt with by extracting the offending tooth. If you remember correctly, tooth extractions were a rough process. Washington ended up with tooth infections, swollen gums, and dentures that hurt and fit awkwardly. He sent many letters to his dentist trying to find newer and better ways to take care of his dental problems. Did you know that when George Washington became president, only one tooth in his mouth was a real one? The rest were all fake teeth that were fashioned from a combination of carved ivory and real human teeth.

Through the 1790s, Washington had several more sets of dentures custom-made for him. Most of the time, he found them uncomfortable and ended up ordering a new set. According to one of his complaints, his dentures were forcing his lips to be pushed out. If you examine portraits of George Washington from year to year, we do see changes in his facial features that are quite likely due to his dental issues. For example, a 1776 portrait by Charles Wilson Peale reveals that one cheek bears a scar. This was caused by a surgical procedure to tend to an infected tooth. These revelations certainly explain why he is so serious and close-mouthed in all of his pictures. In his later years, even eating and speaking were difficult tasks. Towards the end, Washington was forced to dine on very soft foods that did not require much chewing.