Although the Etruscans had fixed partial dentures in the sixth century BC and the Romans had removable ones after them, with the fall of Rome came the fall of dentistry. In the Medieval Period, there were few who could make dentures, although many people needed them. Society didn’t have the leisure time and resources to consider the problem of damaged and missing teeth. Even Queen Elizabeth I had black teeth, except for the missing ones.
However, by the end of the 17th century, dentists were establishing themselves in Britain, although they were not originally called “dentists,” but “tooth operators.” The first English book on dentistry appeared in 1685. In this book, it described when people had to rely on dentures:
When our decay’d Teeth . . . quite rot away or that some intolerable pain has made us draw them: we are not yet to despair, and esteem ourselves Toothless for the rest of our Life; the loss indeed is great, but not irreparable. there is still some help for it; the natural want may be supplied artificially.
In other words, dentures. And, based on an advertisement from less than 30 years later, the ideals of dentures were largely the same as they are today:
Artificial teeth set in so well as to eat with them, and not to be distinguish’d from natural, not to be taken out at night, as is by some falsely suggested, but may be worn for years together. They are an ornament to the mouth and greatly help the speech. Also, teeth clean’d and drawn, by John Watts (Operator).
Most of this ad makes sense to us. People want dentures that look natural and are functional in both eating and in speech, but the last part strikes us as a little odd. What do they mean by “clean’d and drawn”?
There were many problems with early dentures. First, there was no way to take impressions or use them as a model for false teeth, so they had to be sculpted by hand without any guide. But the main problem was in finding suitable material for making false teeth. Many alternatives were tried, such as bone, ivory, and wood, but these not only didn’t look right, they didn’t last. Without protective enamel or a similar coating, they began to rot fairly quickly in the mouth’s hostile environment. The best replacement teeth were real teeth, and ideally human teeth. But where to get them?
One common source was the graveyard. After all, resurrectionists were already digging up corpses to supply the growing number of wealthy hobbyists who had taken up anatomy as well as the medical schools. But these teeth had a problem: since they were in a person who was already dead, they were often rotten and unsanitary. Though they were boiled to sterilize them, this didn’t always clean them sufficiently, and syphilis and other diseases were spread through dentures.
Another source was criminals. Sometimes a judge would allow a criminal’s teeth to be extracted as part of the sentence or before execution. Other times, it took an enterprising individual to seize upon the opportunity presented by a body hanging from the noose for too long. But because criminals did not always take the best care of themselves, these were also not that good of replacements. However, the fractious politics of the eighteenth and nineteenth century soon resulted in a plentiful supply of teeth.
When war broke out across the continent, it became a bonanza for dentists and their patients. Not only were there suddenly thousands of corpses available, often piled up for convenience near the army hospital or placed in mass graves, but they were the corpses of young, healthy men, prime specimens who but for the misfortunes of war would likely have lived many years with their bright, strong teeth. (Though it must be admitted that, based on the habits of soldiers, a good many of them were probably syphilitic.)
And of all the battles fought on the continent at this time, none were more iconic (or perhaps more profitable) than Waterloo, where the combined armies of England, Holland, and Prussia defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée, leaving more than 50,000 dead on the battlefield. With the bounty of teeth harvested that day, it was said they had to be shipped across the English Channel in barrels. Quickly, the phrase “Waterloo teeth” not only became great advertising, it became a source of national pride. After all, who wouldn’t want to believe that when they smiled, they were showing the teeth of a hero?
At Dental Excellence of Blue Bell, we use the most modern techniques in the manufacture of your dentures, including the use of neuromuscular dentures, with a fit aided not only by your gums, but also by the muscles in your mouth. These dentures give you uncompromising fit and appearance, and you know that these teeth are yours first, last, and for many years to come.
To learn more about your denture options, please contact Dental Excellence of Blue Bell in Philadelphia today.
Dental Excellence of Blue Bell