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Pearly and White! The history of caring for our teeth!

Guest article written by Ann Evans


These days, when most of us have healthy, pain free teeth and gums, we tend to take for granted our bright white smiles. However we must not forget that this is only possible due to regular visits to the dentist and the encouragement we have all been given, from a very young age, to care for our teeth both by regular cleaning and eating the right foods.

Throughout history, this has not always been the case though. Let us take a look at what happened to our teeth in days long gone by.


Evidence from the Past

Archaeologists have been able to find out a great deal about the condition of people’s teeth from many different ancient civilisations from all over the world. Their findings show that the ancient inhabitants of China, India, Egypt and many other places all had evidence of tooth decay, with some instances being so severe that they must have caused severe pain and, in some cases that show infection, may have been the cause of death. Evidence also shows that all of these ancient civilisations tried their hand at early dentistry. This usually took the form of tooth extraction but there is also some evidence of attempted fillings of cavities with beeswax or linen soaked with herbs. False teeth were not unheard of either. The Etruscans, an ancient civilisation in Italy, used gold wire to secure false teeth and there have been other findings of attempts to wedge pieces of bone or animal teeth into a mouth to replace missing teeth.

These attempts at dentistry were limited however and this is because these ancient peoples did not really know the cause of tooth decay. Depending upon the location, demons, the gods, bad spirits and other supernatural forces were given the blame; which meant that the remedies such as charms and spells that were used were of little value. The most common cause of tooth decay though was believed to be the mysterious ‘tooth worm’ which was thought to burrow its way into and eat away at the teeth to cause cavities. The most interesting thing about this theory is that, unlike all of the others, various manuscripts show that this was an idea that not only continued into the 18th century, but was also a theory that was believed by many different cultures across the whole world.

Ancient tooth health was not all bad news though as shown by the excavations of the site at Pompeii. The inhabitants of this particular town had extraordinarily good teeth which was put down to the good Mediterranean diet that they had with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and virtually no sugar.



View of Pompeii

The Big Enemy – Sugar

Of course nowadays we know that sugar is bad for the teeth but this has not always been the case. During Tudor times, when sugar was first imported into England, it was so expensive that only the very richest in the country could afford it. As sugar is so addictive, this meant that those that could afford it often had far too much. It is said that Queen Elizabeth became so addicted to sweet things that her teeth rotted away in her mouth. As the Queen was the fashion icon of the time, it became a status symbol to have brown rotting teeth, with some people even blacking out their teeth to emulate the Queen. Gradually, as the price of sugar came down, more and more people were able to use it and this meant that by the 18th century, the amount of tooth decay was increasing amongst the general populace.


Blackened Teeth of a rich Tudor

Cleaning Up

Throughout history, people have tried various methods to clean their teeth. The first recorded recipe for toothpaste, found on an Ancient Egyptian scroll, recorded salt, ground ox hooves and mint being used. The Ancient Greeks and Romans favoured crushed bones, oyster shells and egg shells, powdered charcoal and bark and herbs such as rosemary and mint. Some of these ingredients such as mint and charcoal can still be found in some toothpastes today. Unfortunately another later ingredient to toothpaste was often sugar which did more harm than good. Toothbrushes as we know them today were not in use though many people in history would naturally chew twigs to help keep their teeth clean and sometimes chew the ends of a twig to make it fibrous and use it as a brush.

As missing teeth were so common, there have always been attempts to create false ones out of various materials. Using real human teeth was generally favoured so it became common practice to extract good teeth from corpses. The casualties from the Battle of Waterloo yielded so many good teeth that false teeth acquired the name ‘Waterloo Teeth’. It was only the rich who could afford these however and, sometimes, poor people resorted to having their own teeth extracted in return for payment.

So – What do you want to be when you grow up?

So who were our olden day dentists? In the early Middle Ages dentists were found in the monasteries which were the only places that had hospitals. The monks had a vast knowledge of the herbs used for various ailments. However, as much of the dentistry work undertaken at the time involved tooth extraction, a very bloody business, the Church banned the monks from performing this work. It therefore fell on the barbers, who had previously assisted the monks, to take on the role of dentistry. From this source evolved the barber surgeons who gradually took on the role of dentists right through to the early Victorian period. Even though a visit to the dentist was a very unpleasant experience, it was still something only for those who could afford it. The majority of working people had to resort to the local blacksmith for tooth extractions. Needless to say this was an extremely risky business and tooth extractions often resulted in severe infections and even death.

In Victorian England, teeth were a problem for everyone. Toothache was so unpleasant and so expensive to treat with some safety that tooth care was a considerable drain on resources even for people with a moderate income. For this reason it was not unusual for a father to give his daughter a 21st birthday gift of having all of her teeth removed – even if she had a healthy set of teeth at the time. Sometimes this ‘gift’ was given as a wedding present and the new set of dentures supplied became known as ‘wedding teeth’. This ‘gift’ made the young woman more marriageable as her future husband would be spared the expense and worry of maintaining his wife’s teeth in future years.

From the 18th century dentistry was presented from a more scientific viewpoint and a book written by a Frenchman called Pierre Fauchard is said to be the basis of our modern dentistry. At this time progress was slow so most people did not benefit from these new findings. It was not until the Victorian era, a time of great change, that dentistry as we know it began to take shape and have an impact on the lives of ordinary people.



A Victorian Dentist


Bringing us to Now


So where does that leave us today? We have the benefit of good advice, good oral hygiene and treatment from highly qualified dentists. No one would want to go back in history and have their teeth seen to in the old ways. We should however pause to reflect that there is always something useful to learn from the past.

Oil of Cloves is still used for dental purposes today – an ancient remedy that has stood the test of time. Another ancient remedy from India and Africa was chewing twigs from the Salvada Persia Tree. These twigs called Miswak contain an antibacterial agent and interestingly are on sale now as being a good natural alternative to commercial toothpaste. And lastly we must not forget Pompeii. Evidence has shown that minerals in the surrounding area similar to fluoride were washed into the water system which probably contributed to the good condition of the teeth of the people of Pompeii. Therefore they had their own source of fluoride added to their water long before it was ever thought to do so in the modern world.



Modern Dentistry

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