Toothcare in the 18th Century

When reading romance novels, it’s sometimes best not to think too deeply about topics of personal hygiene. However, oral hygiene is one where I think I can put your mind somewhat at ease.

Bone and Boar Hair Toothbrushes
photo courtesy of Dr. Samuel D. Harris
National Museum of Dentistry
Baltimore, MD
Not that everybody took care of their teeth, but there were certainly products available to help. People cleaned their teeth with rags or brushes with bone handles and bristles made from animal hair. The image shown is from the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, MD and shows two early toothbrushes with boar hair bristles. The exact date on these is unknown, and although the museum thought they were mid 19th century, they are excellent representations of the types of toothbrushes available in the 18th century as well.

The Colonial Willamsborg site has a photo of a bone handle from a toothbrush that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, but I have yet to find an image of a full 18th century toothbrush.

There were plenty of recipes for toothpowders from the 18th century too, although some were so caustic their use wasn’t recommended more than once every few months. Most contained ingredients such as borax (isn't that a laundry detergent?) and other abrasive substances.

Of course, 18th century teeth weren’t under the constant assault they are today from sugar. At the very least, their morning breath wouldn't have been as bad as that of someone sucking down Moutain Dew all day. And, hey, my characters are in love and it makes a difference!

I suspect that a lot of people lost their teeth in the 18th century at an early age due health issues and lack of nutrition. For example, scurvy is one of the diseases that can cause tooth loss, and it must have been difficult to gain access to fresh fruit during the middle of a New England winter – even if you weren’t at sea. Pregnancy took its toll too. Well into the 20th century there was axiom that said a woman lost a tooth for every child she had. Here, I would bet a lot of the tooth loss had to do with poor nurtition during lactaction.

George Washington's Ivory Dentures
photo courtesy of Dr. Samuel D. Harris
National Museum of Dentistry
Baltimore, MD
When people think of 18th century teeth, thoughts naturally turn to George Washington and his dentures. While normally portrayed as a tall, commanding man (which he was) his physique belies how susceptible he was to the common diseases of the time, including tuberculosis, malaria and smallpox. It’s no wonder he lost his teeth!

Speaking of George Washington and his dentures, the legend we all learned in school was that they were constructed of wood – and made by the man himself. They were made of ivory, among other materials, but not wood.

So the bottom line, in my mind, is this. Any romance novel character with a desire to keep his or her teeth healthy well into middle age, probably could. I always assume that sometime between their romantic interludes and whatever else consumes their days, they find time to care for their teeth. It is just one of those things that isn’t essential to the plot.


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