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Dentistry in the 18th century was a far cry from the advanced and (relatively) pain-free techniques of today. While we grow up going to the dentist every six months and taught to brush and floss at least once a day, dental hygiene was a concept scarcely conceived of in the 1700s. There were no braces, no dental implants, and you’d just as soon find the gold at the end of the rainbow as you would a reliable dentist. 

Tooth care in those days was often carried out by a jack-of-all-trades person often referred to as a “barber-surgeon.” Instead of having specialized dentists, people would offer multiple services in one sitting—you could get a haircut, bloodletting, and tooth extractions during the same visit. While this sounds barbaric compared to the years of training and practice that modern dentists have to complete, the level of understanding of hygiene along with rudimentary medical tools kept dental practices in the dark during the 18th century, with tooth extraction procedures as the go-to for most dental solutions. Other than the numbing effects from alcohol, painful teeth pulling operations offered zero sedation or pain management. It took days or weeks to heal from a tooth extraction, and people’s bleeding mouths often became infected. 


Since dentistry in the 18th century wasn’t a specialty, any dental problems and infections were handled the same way: tooth extraction. In order to prevent the spread of infection to the entire mouth, they would simply take out the infected tooth. And if you were wealthy enough, you would be able to afford false teeth or dentures to be made for you to keep the appearance of a full and healthy smile. One such person was George Washington. 


In 1723, a book called The Surgeon’s Dentist, A Treatise on Teeth, written by Pierre Fauchard was published. This book was monumental in shaping modern dentistry since it was the first comprehensive study into the blossoming specialization. Because of this book, Fauchard is often referred to as “The Father of Modern Dentistry”. It would still be a long time before dentistry became a practice that wasn’t thought of with terror and ripping out teeth as the only way to deal with dental issues. In 1746, Frenchman Claude Mouton developed the process of gold capping crowds to repair damaged and decaying teeth, as well as sheathing them with white enamel to match natural teeth.


Did George Washington Really Have Wooden Teeth?


George Washington is famous for a lot of things: being the first president of the United States, the Cherry Tree legend, and having wooden teeth. But did he really have a denture set made entirely of wood as the myth says? Turns out, no. While Washington definitely had tons of dental issues throughout his life and wore dentures, none of them were made from wood. Instead, they were made from a variety of different materials: gold, lead, ivory, and human teeth.


How Did The Wooden Teeth Myth Start?


The origin of the myth around Washington’s wooden teeth is still unclear. Some think it came from the stained woodlike appearance that Washinton’s ivory dentures developed over time. They became so stained that in 1798, dentist John Greenwood had to remind Washington to clean them regularly since his regular consumption of Port wine took off the polish. Washington’s dental hygiene was so disastrous that during his first inaugural address in 1789, he only had a single natural tooth remaining. Even though his dentures never included wooden teeth, the fact that the most important person in American history at the time struggled with dental hygiene like everyone else helped make him accessible and relatable to the general public. 


Modern Practices


Modern dentistry has come a long way in the past couple of centuries. If you go to a dentist today, whether for a regular checkup or for a dental emergency, you can expect a level of care, expertise, and professionalism that simply wasn’t available back then. Facial numbing, anesthesia, and of course over the head T.V. screens that distract you during a dental appointment all make the dentist’s office much more enjoyable than it would have been in the 1700s.