Ever think about dentists and dentures? I, like many of you, just hate going to the dentist. Oh I love beautiful teeth, and I brush and floss, almost like I am supposed to, but I just hate that dentist chair. However, a little research has shown me that I have a lot to be thankful for, because things used to be a lot worse.
The ancient world had its dentists too. Around 800 B.C., the Etruscans in Italy were considered to have the best dentists. It is said that the Etruscans’ skill in making dentures and false teeth was not equaled until the nineteenth century. The early dentists often pulled teeth and replaced them with full or partial dentures. Realistically crafted individual teeth were made from ivory or bone and inserted into a framework of gold. Real teeth, taken from the dead, were also inserted into a base of gold.
In comparison to the Etruscans, medieval and early Renaissance dentists were primitive in their practices and beliefs. They taught that “tooth worms” that bored from the inside out made cavities. Often the rich bought good sturdy teeth from the poor. The teeth were pulled for a negotiated fee and then set into ‘gums’ of ivory.
Dentists fashioned teeth of ivory but found that ivory was not the best material to use. It was porous, changed color and seemed to make the denture wearer very unpopular. In 1850 it was written that, “Ivory gives to the air returned from the lungs an unsufferably offensive odor, which cannot be prevented or corrected.” Many washings and cleanings could not erase the offensive odor from the mouth of the denture wearer.
In 1733 or 1734, this negative property of ivory was at the root of an important legal decision. In his New York Weekly Journal, John Zenger wrote that the colonial governor, William Cosby, had loathsome false teeth and an unclean mouth. Zenger was jailed by Cosby for libel but later was found not guilty when Cosby was found guilty of bad breath. For the first time, Truth became a defense against libel.
The life of a denture wearer was a miserable one. The lack of good dentures and/or the way to keep them in place, made great men such as George Washington moody. Even Queen Elizabeth was embarrassed by the loss of her front teeth and made public appearances with her mouth stuffed full of cloth. Early dentures were worn as a cosmetic measure and not always to aid the wearer in chewing.
Keeping uppers in place was always a problem. Fashionable women in the 1500’s had their gums pierced with hooks to hold denture wires. In the next century, springs were used to hold uppers in place. Constant pressure was required, because a loss of concentration resulted in jaws flying open.
There were many horror stories about ‘teeth robbers’ who took their loot from soldiers not yet dead. Thousands of Europeans had what were called “Waterloo dentures”, and in the 1860’s, many more thousands here in America wore “Civil War” teeth. Porcelain teeth eventually put an end to this practice.
Porcelain improved the appearance of false teeth, and vulcanized rubber, perfected in the 1800’s, gave us a good comfortable base to hold the teeth. Along with these two 19th-century innovations was “laughing gas”. Painless dentistry was ushered in. For the first time in history, decayed, aching teeth could be pulled painlessly and replaced with attractive, comfortable, and durable dentures.
After World War I, plastics and resins made dentures so natural looking and comfortable that the curse was lifted from one of the world’s oldest struggles.
So there you have it…. a bit about dentists and dentures. When I have to go to the dentist again, I promise I will go with a smile. We really have come a long way. God bless you.