Dentures: A Strange History
George Washington is known as the first president of the United States and a brave general. He is also known for having worn dentures. Although his false teeth were never made of wood, he did have several sets of false teeth. The set he used while he was president was made of ivory and held together with gold springs and brass screws. An earlier set was made with human teeth.
Today, dentures are custom made prosthetic devices, designed to fit comfortably and securely in someones mouth. As with most other medical procedures and technology, historical examples were much less comfortable, either to wear or to read about. Here are a few examples of dentures throughout the years.
Ancient Egyptians were creating dentures as early as 1500 BC. A series of human teeth would be threaded together with gold wire. This created a functioning set of false teeth for the wearer. The Etruscan people of northern Italy also used gold wire to string together human or animal teeth to create partial dentures for missing teeth in 700 BC. These replacement teeth did not hold together well, and often fell apart. Luckily, they were relatively cheap to produce, repair, and replace. Wiring teeth together in this fashion continued in Europe well into the Renaissance period.
The first known example of complete dentures were made of wood. Instead of belonging to the President of the United States, these contraptions were created in Japan in the early 16th century. Like modern dentures, these were held in place by suction. In fact, they look similar to the shape of a modern denture, although not made from flexible, comfortable materials. Later versions would use other materials such as human teeth, ivory, horn or pagodite stone to create the false teeth, but the practice of using wooden dentures lasted into the 19th century.
Not every culture used a prosthetic device to replace wooden teeth. Ancient tribes would place replacement teeth directly into the empty sockets. Archaeologist have found Mayan remains with false teeth made of carved shells and stones that fused with the jawbone to become permanent.
Without access to sturdy materials such as porcelain to make false teeth, many sets of false teeth were made from the teeth of other people. Grave robbing became more common, and Waterloo teeth were taken from soldiers left dead on the battlefield during wars. Sometimes the poor sold teeth as their only means of raising income.
Near the end of the 1700s, porcelain dentures became available. As a more affordable alternative, vulcanite was sometimes used to make false teeth. Vulcanite is a form of hardened rubber. Rubber teeth continued into the early 20th century, when resin and plastics became available.
Today, with dental implants available, dentures themselves could be thought of as strange devices. In the future, even they might seem outlandish as new technology makes them obsolete.