Until very recently, “false” teeth were often not false at all, but rather real teeth taken from another human or animal. The earliest record of dentures is from around 7th century BC, when Etruscans fashioned dentures from animal and human teeth. This art ended with their civilization, but re-emerged with the practice of making dentures in the 1700s.
In the 1700s, sugar was well-known and available throughout Europe. As a result, there was more tooth decay and tooth-saving techniques such as root canals were not yet developed. This meant that many people were missing teeth, and it was rare for someone to reach 50 with all their natural teeth. And so many people needed false teeth.
Early Types of False Teeth
Although our modern technology allows for comfort and easy-to-use dentures, this was not always the case. Original dentures had difficulties with fit, attachment, comfort, and durability. As dentists tried to improve false teeth, they tried many different materials and techniques.
Ivory was one of the earliest materials used to replace lost teeth. Ivory came from animals like the hippopotamus, walrus, or elephant. These teeth tended to decay and rarely looked natural, but got the job done. Ivory was still used for the base of dentures, even after quality human teeth became more available near the end of the 18th century.
The best dentures were made from human teeth. The source of these teeth ranged from robbed graves, peasants looking to make a quick buck, and even dentists’ collections. Understandably, these sources provided poor quality teeth. Their poor quality meant that dentures were mostly cosmetic and needed to be removed for eating.
The death of 50,000 men at the battle of Waterloo in 1815 soon diminished the lack of quality human teeth. Soldiers marching at Waterloo were young and healthy, so their teeth were ideal for denture making. “Waterloo teeth” became the fashion in Britain and were often worn as a trophy despite the impossibility of knowing their direct origin.
This practice of using human teeth for dentures continued on into the late 1860s. The American Civil War provided one source to these later versions of “Waterloo teeth.”
Luckily, such ghastly techniques lessened after 1843 when Charles Goodyear discovered how to make flexible rubber. Charles’s brother Nelson named the new material vulcanite and patented it in 1851. It turns out that vulcanite makes a more comfortable base for false teeth. Because other versions of false teeth were more expensive, the market for vulcanite teeth flourished. For the first time ever, middle class people bought and wore false teeth along with the rich and wealthy.
Porcelain false teeth were invented in the late 1700s in France. However, their tendency to crack and grate against each other made them unpopular choices. It wasn’t until after many improvements in strength and texture in the late 1800s that porcelain teeth because a popular choice for dentures and bridges and replaced human teeth, ivory, and bone. Porcelain is still a popular choice for many dental applications.
Until recently, the wealthy were the only ones who could afford false teeth. Here are some wealthy public figures whose dental history you may find interesting:
In the time before common cavity prevention practices existed, problem teeth were extracted right and left. Few attempted replacements with substitute teeth, and the procedures often went awry. If aching teeth remained, further decay would occur with no replacement alternative.
During her 44 year reign from 1558-1603, ivory dentures had not yet been developed. As a result, the only solution available to her was stuffing bits of cloth into the gaps in her teeth when attending public events.
Despite popular legend, George Washington’s teeth were not made of wood. Instead, Washington commissioned several dentists throughout his life to fashion false teeth out of the finest materials available. In his twenties, George began to lose teeth to decay and suffered from toothaches constantly over the years.
Before the Revolutionary War, Dr. John Baker made a partial denture of ivory to wire to Washington’s remaining teeth. Later, Dr. John Greenwood of New York fashioned an advanced denture out of hippopotamus ivory for the president’s inauguration in 1789. Dr. Greenwood even made a hole in the dentures for Washington’s final remaining tooth, which Washington later gave to him as a thank you.
Luckily for us, the 20th century yielded new technologies and materials for dentures. Acrylic resins and other moldable plastics are now the norm for denture and bridge partials. Plastics are easy to get and manipulate, so the price of dentures is also considerably lower.
Dental advancements also came about regarding the fit and suction of false teeth. Modern false teeth and dentures are more comfortable, are easier to chew with (yes, even corn on the cob), and last longer than teeth made with past materials. Although, far less people need false teeth and dentures now, thanks to advances in dental hygiene and dentistry.