Monday, November 24, 2014

The Hazards of Dental Hygiene—and tooth extraction, Eighteenth-Century Style, by Diane Scott Lewis

It’s almost Turkey Day! Fun with family, (or arguments) and all that food...stuck in your teeth. In England, where they didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, they still needed to clean up those pearly whites, and the eighteenth century had a unique manner of dental hygiene.
Up through the seventeenth century, dental care was erratic. Tooth extraction was usually performed by barber-surgeons and had a horrific and painful connotation. That pain and irregularity continued into the eighteenth century.
Teeth were hammered loose and jerked out sideways. Sometimes the patient was laid out on the floor with his head between the surgeon’s knees for the extraction of rotten teeth.

To advertise their services as “tooth-pullers,” these barber-surgeons hung rows of rotten teeth outside their shops. That must have been gruesome.

Thankfully the dental field did evolve in this century. Frenchman Pierre Fauchard (1678 –1761) is considered the father of modern dentistry. A highly skilled surgeon, he made remarkable improvements in dental instruments, often adapting tools from watch makers, jewelers and even barbers. He introduced dental fillings as treatment for dental cavities. He insisted that sugar derivate acids like tartaric acid were responsible for dental decay—a man ahead of his time.
In Britain “Operators for the teeth” developed into “dentists.” Samuel Darkin, who practiced in Whitechapel in the 1760’s, advertised himself as “Surgeon-dentist to his Majesty; Families attended by the year.” Several women combined dentistry with other skills, such as the enterprising Madame Silvie who made and fitted artificial teeth. “Those who don’t chuse to make their grievances known by asking for the Artificial Teeth-maker may ask for the Gold Snuff-box and Tweezer-case Maker.”

British surgeon John Hunter penned two important books in this time period, Natural History of Human Teeth (1771 ) and Practical Treatise on the Diseases of the Teeth (1778). In 1763 he entered into a period of collaboration with the London-based dentist James Spence. Hunter theorized the possibility of tooth transplants from one person to another.

The fear of tooth-pulling remained widespread (and without modern pain-killers it was understandable). After her niece’s excruciating experience, Jane Austen declared she would not let Mr. Spence “look at my teeth for a shilling a tooth and double it!”

Basic dental hygiene was little more than a toothpick and wiping down your gums with a cloth. Women suffered tooth loss worse than men due to vitamin loss during pregnancy. The poor also struggled with dental care.
Horse hair toothbrush
They were more concerned with buying food for their family than paying for tooth powders and the newly invented mass-produced toothbrush.

But dental procedures and care gained respect in the later eighteenth century. To avoid the pain of tooth extraction, or the expense of dentures, the art of teeth cleaning advanced.

England’s William Addis (a rag trader) is believed to have invented the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1780. In 1770, jailed for causing a riot, he found the prison method to clean teeth—rubbing a rag with soot and salt over your teeth—ineffective.  From one of his meals, he saved a small animal bone, drilled it with holes, and obtained bristles from a guard. He tied the bristles into tufts in the holes and sealed them with glue.
After his release, he started a business that would manufacture his toothbrushes, and he became very rich.
With the desire for better hygiene came the marketing of Toothpaste and powders. These were hyped as not only keeping teeth clean but in a time of rampant Pyorrhoea and scurvy, useful for fastening in those pesky loose teeth. Toothpowder came in a ceramic pot and was available either as a powder or paste. The ingredients could include crushed bones, oyster shells and pumice. The rich applied it with brushes and the poor with their fingers. 

A 1780 receipt for tooth powder:
1 1/2 oz. dragons blood  (not easy to find I imagine)
1 1/2 oz. cinnamon; and 1 oz. burnt alum.
Beat the above ingredients together and use every second day.

Horace Walpole put his faith in alum. He’d occasionally dissolve a lump in his mouth to keep his teeth strong. It must have tasted terrible.
Fauchard recommended using your own urine to clean your teeth—something that was always handy. Another method was bashing the end of a wooden skewer, to render it brush-like: “You must clean your teeth with this brush alone...once a fortnight, not oftener, dip your skewer brush into a few grains of gunpowder...”

Not surprisingly, most of these concoctions and methods did more harm than good by destroying tooth enamel.
Lord Chesterfield warned against the use of these sticks or any hard surface, as they “destroy the varnish of the teeth.” Smart man.

Delicate gold-handled toothbrushes, sometimes with replaceable heads, were included in the cases of toilet instruments for the rich. Toothpicks made of quills were the eighteenth-century dental floss and were kept in pretty jeweled boxes.
Toothpick box
Sounds more for show than practical use.
Fortunately for us, the knowledge and advantage of dental hygiene improved greatly in the years to come.

Sources: Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Picard, and Wikipedia.

My eighteenth-century characters, strong-willed women, had healthy teeth: check out my website to visit the wilds of Cornwall:


  1. What a fascinating article. So glad times have changed, I'm awed by all the research you've done to put this article together.

  2. Great post. And odd since I'd just read an article in "The Journal of the American Revolution" about George Washington's teeth. It seems that those who could afford it--if their teeth were bad (or in Washington's case nearly nonexistent), the next best option was having them replaced. The 18th century was an age of refining the modern day bridge work. In George's case, it caused more pain than not, hence his dour expression in many paintings and our dollar bill. And his teeth were not made of wood. They were of ivory. It seems he was a lover of red wine, which gave those elephant tusk chompers striations that mimicked the look of wood.

  3. Interesting post, Diane. Ugh! made my teeth go on edge just thinking about it. Thank heaven we have such good dental practices today. I was the 10th child born to our mother and she had one tooth left in her mouth when I was young(she was then late forties) because of breast feeding so many babies and not eating properly for years. She finally got dentures but hated them and would take them out before eating.


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