Oral History, article from History Today, May 2011
In the interests of historical research, Lucy Worsley adopted the dental hygiene habits of previous centuries.
Every American schoolchild knows that George Washington, first President of the USA (1732-1799), wore false teeth made from hippopotamus ivory and cow tooth.
During the Revolutionary Wars, the capture in 1781 of his letter requesting cleaning tools for his dentures alerted the British forces to his whereabouts, and this fact demonstrates how the smallest details of daily life have the capacity to determine the fate of empires. In a new book, If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home, I’ve been investigating how the tiny, seemingly-trivial details of domestic habits can also chart huge changes in society and medical understanding.
One of the topics I found most interesting was the history of teeth and their care. The bathroom, where most people clean their teeth today, was the last room in the house to develop. Only gradually, between 1860 and 1960, did specialised bathrooms become standard in house planning. So exactly where in the house did earlier people clean their bodies and teeth? Last year I spent a week without using my bath, shower or washbasin in the hope of finding out. I also adopted a Tudor personal hygiene regime (no shampoo, deodorant or toothpaste). The pattern of pre-bathroom life quickly became obvious. I could wash in whichever room of the house felt warmest. I often used the kitchen as it was conveniently close to the tap, but ideally I would have had a maid to bring my basin of water to me in the privacy of my bedroom. And of course I never had to queue for the bathroom.
I also discovered that Tudor teeth-cleaning methods were remarkably effective. Health manuals and conduct books reveal that teeth were cleaned with water, salt, rosemary or even cuttlefish, rubbed on with cloths, twigs or sponges. I found powdered cuttlefish to be best, applied with a cloth rather than the splayed-out end of a twig. I finally settled upon cuttlefish powder mixed with rosemary for taste and its antiseptic properties, followed by a gargle of vinegar.
But rich Tudor people also had sugar, and therefore cavities: the aged Elizabeth I was a fearsome figure with ‘nose a little hooked, her lips narrow and her teeth black’. Once decay set in, and teeth were yanked out, rudimentary dentures of ivory or bone were worn. The earliest surviving pair dates from the 1580s.
And the history of dentistry also forms part of the history of the house, because that’s where treatment took place. The barber-surgeons of Tudor times did all the jobs about the body requiring blades, removing rotten teeth along with amputating limbs and cutting hair, and would make home visits to those who could afford their services.
The late seventeenth century saw the development of dentistry as a separate branch of medicine. Charles Allen’s book The Operator for the Teeth (1685) is the earliest dental treatise in English. He emphasises the role that healthy teeth play in chewing, and regrets the pain caused by tooth-ache. His eighteenth-century successors agreed that strong teeth were necessary for eating, but they also exhibited a new and more refined set of values. The Georgians wanted a fine set of snappers for additional reasons: for genteel-sounding speech, and to look good: ‘the ornament of the mouth’. This was the century in which toothy smiles began to appear in portraits for the first time.
Along with shopping trips, wigs and tea-pots, the new Georgian art of dentistry was part of a boom in unnecessary but charming additions to daily life. All were intended to display your taste, wealth and the fact that you had leisure time to squander. Unfortunately the fine ladies who longed for a ‘fine mouth’ often rotted their teeth through drinking the newly-fashionable sugared tea. In 1703 we hear them condemned them for ‘drinking hot Liquors, and eating Sugar-Plums at Church’ so that ‘not one in ten has a Tooth left’. Another reason for the poor state of people’s teeth was the use of ‘vomits’ which, like bleeding or enemas, still formed an important component of medicine. A person who is regularly sick will have tooth damage caused by strong stomach acids.
And there was still no sure way of avoiding decay. One hardly believes in the powers of a ‘pleasant ODORIFEROUS TINCTURE’ advertised in the Weekly Journal in 1725, which promises to make even the ‘blackest and most foul teeth extremely white, clean and beautiful at one using’. During my week without toothpaste, I also shrank from trying the brightening treatment recommended by The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1764: ‘A few grains of gunpowder … will remove every blemish and give your teeth an inconceivable whiteness.’
Salt remained a popular toothpowder, as did bicarbonate of soda, but the twigs of earlier times were gradually replaced by pig or horse-hair bristle-brushes. In 1721, Sir John Philipps begged his wife not to use one: ‘using a brush to your teeth and gums (as you constantly do) will certainly prove in time extremely injurious’. He suggested a sponge instead.
Most people requiring false teeth preferred not to advertise their need. Customers in search of the services of Mme Silvie, a Georgian dentist, were assured of her discretion: ‘Those who don’t choose to make their grievances known by asking for the Artificial Teeth-maker may ask for the Gold Snuff-box and Tweezer-case Maker’ instead. The Dental Journal of 1880 describes the sad case of a lady who complained of a pain in her throat. She was too embarrassed to tell her doctor what he soon discovered for himself: that she’d swallowed her top set of false teeth.
One strange byway through the history of dentistry was a short-lived craze for live tooth transplantation, something else that took place in your own front room. The surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) pioneered the art of transplanting living organs from one body to another, and his technique worked on the teeth too. A rich patient with gaps would buy from a pauper, and the transplantation from mouth to mouth would be carried out as quickly as possible with pliers and alcohol.
The practice ended in the early nineteenth century for three reasons. Firstly, there were moral concerns about poor people selling healthy teeth (similar to today’s debates about kidney-harvesting). Secondly, diseases like syphilis could also be transmitted along with the teeth. And finally, the new porcelain false teeth of the 1780s were beautiful, white and durable. Gradually porcelain replaced all the earlier materials, which had included ivory, mother-of-pearl, silver, agate and walrus-tooth. But even porcelain falsies must have been extremely uncomfortable: an 1846 dental textbook admits they were usually ‘too insecure in the mouth to admit of any attempt at complete mastication of the food’. Only the importation of Indian rubber would make them comfortable.
Once false teeth could be fitted reasonably snugly, though, they became an object of great desire. You could avoid future pain and dentist’s bills by having all your teeth out at once. In 1918, T.S. Eliot overheard women in a pub discussing the return of their husbands from the First World War:
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set.
Still, the practice of live tooth transplantation took a long time to die out completely. In 1919, the Royal College of Surgeon’s Examiner in Dentistry was still able to publish a textbook describing how to perform this arcane art.
By then, though, dentistry had moved out of people’s own front rooms and into the specialist surgery: no longer was it part of the history of the home.
Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and presents the series If Walls Could Talk broadcast on BBC4 in April and May. The book of the same title is published by Faber and Faber (April 2011).
© 2013 Lucy Worsley