We all know now that George Washington’s false teeth weren’t really made of wood. According to Willliam M. Etter, Washington’s dentures were comprised of ivory (including hippopotamus), human and animal teeth, metal and lead. At the time he became President, Washington had only one of his own teeth, and special dentures made to accommodate it. Apparently he was not happy with the way the dentures affected his facial appearance, telling their maker John Greenwood that they “are both uneasy in the mouth and bulge my lips out”.
But what other options were available to people with missing teeth, particularly if they lacked the financial or social standing of Washington? Ties between oral health/appearance and socioeconomic status are now well known as public health issues, and traded on in the appearances and story lines of lower class characters like Pennsatucky in Orange Is The New Black (as Sarah Smarsh discusses in her very interesting essay). I also recall jokes made when my uncle broke a front tooth on a family camping trip that tied his appearance to the supporters of an Australian Football League team stereotyped as working class. Conversely, the arrival of sugar as a very expensive import to late Tudor England blackened the teeth of Elizabeth I, and could cause such decay to be interpreted as a sign of wealth. In the eighteenth century there was a thriving trade in ‘live tooth transplants’, wherein poorer people could sell their healthy teeth to be implanted into the gums of wealthier patients .
What prompted this blog post was my first encounter with an historical false tooth made out of wax. As it turns out, there are a number of YouTube videos providing guides for fashioning such DIY teeth today, some explicitly linking the idea to the high cost of professional tooth replacement measures, and the shame and social retreat caused by this change in appearance.
The historical tooth in question appears in an 1858 entry in the diary of Mollie Dorsey Sanford, who records toothache at points throughout the diary. Mollie moved from Indianapolis to Nebraska with her parents in 1857, and after marriage in 1860 would head to Colorado and then Denver, at one point working as a cook to a very isolated miners’ group high in the Rocky Mountains. It’s a fascinating account.
Mollie’s wax tooth is a stop-gap measure provoked by an unexpected visit from a potential suitor, and making do until she could travel to a dentist. The relevant diary passages (taken from the North American Women’s Letters and Diaries database) are as follows:
10 July 1858
…I am just getting over the effects of having a front tooth gouged out and a new one put in. In an unguarded moment I broke off one that was prepared for filling. The accident happened at dinner one day, and as luck would have it, Mr. Byram sent his compliments, announcing that he was coming in to make his farewell call before going to Utah. I was not going to be visible, but Mrs. B. insisted, and said we could fix up a tooth of white wax. It did look perfectly natural, and I thought by being careful I could get thro the evening. The time passed pleasantly, so very pleasantly that I forgot the existence of my bogus tooth, and when a repartee of “Peter’s” called forth a hearty laugh, out came the tooth. I begged to be excused (long enough to replace it, I thought) but lost it entirely, and had no time to make another. I could not go back so disfigured and disenchant the gentleman, so Mrs. B. told him I was sick (of course I was), and with profound regrets at my sudden indisposition, he departed, after which we rolled over the floor and laughed until we were almost sick, in reality.
I made another tooth the following morning, and while standing on the balcony looking down on the street, Mr. Byram looked up and spoke, and as I opened my mouth to reply, out came the treacherous tooth again and took him on the head. I drew back and stepped inside, when he came puffing up the steps to see what I was offended at, and there was nothing to do but make a clean breast of it. He thought it improved my looks, I was so rosy and blushing, and “my image should go with him, on his dreary journey across the plains, if I did not have a tooth in my head.” After which he bade me good-by, and I wished him a safe journey and we parted. Father came in town that day and took me to the dentist, and I won’t have to resort to wax substitutes any more.
But Mr Byram’s gallantry here doesn’t help him…
…I was very much surprised yesterday as I was about to leave the schoolroom after dismissing the little ones. I noticed a gentleman hitching a mouse-colored mule to the post, and directly, who should come up to the door but Mr. Peter Byram himself, bronzed and tanned but handsome as ever. We had a laugh over the tooth scrape, and he admitted that I did look better since the dentist had furnished a genuine one. I was still further surprised when he made known the object of his visit. He came to propose marriage. “He did not believe I was going to marry Mr. Sanford or I wouldn’t be teaching school.” Beside, he had heard that he had left the country. Whether he storied or someone told him for sport I do not know. I only know he’s a goose.
I did not accept Mr. Byram. He told me of his possessions, and position with the Company as much as to say, “All shall be thine if thou wilt marry me.” I asked Peter if he would have a girl that would throw off an honest man if he was poor, to marry for money. He said he would marry me under any circumstances. Assuming all the dignity and indignation I could command, I said, “Mr. Byram, you have insulted me. I bid you good day.” With queenly tread and flushing cheek, I wended my homeward way, leaving him to untie his mule and gallop off his chagrin. This morning I had a note, begging me to consider him a friend and a gentleman, and wishing me eternal happiness with Mr. Sanford.
What the “genuine” new tooth furnished by Mollie’s dentist is made of we unfortunately don’t know (perhaps here “genuine” means real human?). She records having another tooth pulled on 10 August 1860, but doesn’t note any replacement, suggesting it was probably in the back. We will have to content ourselves with the satisfaction of imagining her “queenly tread and flushing cheek” as she storms off, assisted by this photograph of Mollie and her sister Nan from Maggie MacLean’s biographical essay:
 “George Washington to John Greenwood, 20 January 1797,” ed. John Rodehamel, George Washington, Writings (New York: Library of America, 1997), 986-8. Quoted by Etter.
. Mark Blackwell, ‘“Extraneous Bodies”: The Contagion of Live-Tooth Transplantation in Late-Eighteenth-Century England’, Eighteenth-Century Life 28.1 (2004): 21-68.
. Sanford , Mollie Dorsey, 1838-1915, Diary of Mollie Dorsey Sanford, July, 1858, in Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories 1857-1866.Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1959, pp. 71-74.
. Sanford, Mollie Dorsey, 1838-1915, Diary of Mollie Dorsey Sanford, June, 1859, in Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories 1857-1866. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1959, pp. 199.