How many of you hate going to the dentist? *raises hand*

Most of us don’t really enjoy going for dental work. In our minds, those little partitioned cubicles are sterile chambers of torture complete with tools specific for finely crafted cruelty. Unfortunately, we all crave that perfect smile of brilliant white, straight teeth where we can eat anything, hot, cold and in between, without ever having the slightest twinge of discomfort. Alas, that makes the dentist necessary.

This need for a healthy smile is not a new one, although it has become significantly less unpleasant throughout the years. While many believe dental hygiene is a modern convenience, I think you’ll be surprised at what I uncovered.

First of all, people have been cleaning their teeth for centuries. They may not have had access to ADA toothbrushes and fresh, minty toothpastes, but they did still brush their teeth and they did still swish with mouthwash. After all, how could one wake up with morning breath and be totally OK with that funk all day?

The most popular early toothbrush wasn’t a brush at all. It was a stick – a chew stick to be specific, which is exactly what it sounds like. A twig or stick with the end frayed. That end would be scraped across the teeth to brush away excess bits of food particles and that ‘tooth fuzz’. This was actually a pretty effective method of brushing the teeth and is still used today in some countries. Hard brushers be warned: you can do serious gum damage with chew sticks.

Toothbrushes were first invented in China and made with horsehair and ivory. They were brought back to England, but the trend didn’t really catch on. Why not, you wonder… Well, imagine if someone gave you a brush with pig hair in it and told you to put it in your mouth? Say you were daring enough to do it…and then you realized how the animal hair started falling out and sticking between your teeth and plastering to your tongue. A chew stick is looking significantly more hygienic at this point, isn’t it? And that’s exactly how the European nobles felt about it.

In addition to the chew stick, nobles also incorporated the use of tooth picks to clean their teeth. Not the cheap wooden bamboo stick things we all poke in cakes to make sure it cooked all the way through – these things were FANCY! They were made of silver and gold with little handles crusted with gems by the most skilled of craftsmen. After a 17th century dinner, it would not be uncommon to see nobles cleaning their heavy meal from their teeth with these fancy picks.

Not only were there chew sticks and tooth picks, there were also tooth powders and mouthwashes. Mouthwashes were usually made of vinegar and/or wine/liquor. While it wouldn’t do much to make our mouth as feel clean by modern day standards, it was a decent method of combating bacteria back in the day.

Tooth powders were typically made of an abrasive material mixed with dried herbs to freshen the breath. The abrasive materials could be anything from ground up shell or pumice to bits of charcoal. These powders were rubbed onto the teeth either with the fingers or a cloth and then rinsed and spat out. The concept of toothpaste was introduced several times, but didn’t catch on until the end of the 19th century. It probably seems strange that people would be opposed to toothpaste (which came in lead tubes – yikes!), but if you think about it, how weird would it be to switch our toothpaste to a tooth powder? I guess people just like to go with what they are familiar with.  😉

If you’re interested, I found a fascinating article on one person’s experiments with old tooth powders and mouth washes. If you’re a history dork like me and are curious, check it out here:

Don’t get too excited about seeing anything on dental floss. That didn’t really come onto the markets for consumer use until the late 1800’s. Nor were there any methods for filling cavity ridden teeth or performing root canals. If you had a serious tooth ache back in the day, you went to a barber-surgeon who would wrench that tooth right out of your head. With no anesthetic, mind you. While the process was most likely incredibly uncomfortable, the tooth pain would cease almost immediately with the pulling of the tooth.

Now you know that people really were hygienic about their teeth back in the day, but what about cosmetics? Were white smiles desirable? What happened when people lost all their teeth? Guess you’ll have to find out in the part 2 edition I post later on this week. Bwhahahahaha!!

Trust me, you’ll want to come back – it’s fascinating. 😉

  1. Heh. I was just revising my Maggie submission, and it includes the section where I describe a stick with a frayed end. Where was this post when I originally had to research that??!! *shakes fist and wishes for time machine*

    We just watched “Sanjuro”, a Japanese period movie, and the older woman had black teeth. I have a vague memory that upper-class women in feudal Japan blackened their teeth on purpose, but I can’t remember the details. Maybe you know?

    • LOL – sorry for the belated post. 😉 My goal with this site is to not only introduce interesting history facts, but also add day to day knowledge for writers of historical life – so I like that you’re actually seeing it as such. 🙂 Yay for a mission accomplished!!
      Per the black teeth, let’s just say you may want to check in on Thursday for Part 2 of this piece…you may find some of what you’re looking for. 😉

  2. Hi Madeline,

    I have this fabulous movie, LOST IN AUSTEN, where a modern English woman switches places with Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice. She actually talks about brushing her teeth with a frayed twig. I had no idea what she meant. Until now.

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • I remember watching a movie where someone kept shoving a stick in their mouth in the evening and wondered what the heck they were doing. You’re not at all alone there with the confusion. LOL I’m sure at some point, I’ll just HAVE to weave into one of my historicals (but I’ll make sure to throw in a little showing description that’ll keep the reader from being as confused as we were) Hehehe 🙂

  3. Ohhhh,, remember the good ol’ days? That phrase along with the… back in the “x” it was much better or the I wish I lived back in the “x” it was so much better then. Yeah, right. Said by a bunch of people that have absolutely NO clue how life really was. Personally. I am lazy beast of comfort driven by modern conveniences of the day and in fact I curse the lack of advancement so I can be even lazier. back in the day,,, psshaw, thanks… but no thanks. Love the write up, as usual. Keep em coming. : )

    • ROFL This is an incredibly valid point. 🙂 I know I always have these romantic notions of how fabulous it would be to go back in time, but I know if I did I’d probably hate it (and I’d probably end up dead pretty quick LOL) I guess that’s why historicals are so popular. They can pull you back into that time and submerge you in the dream from the comfort of your air conditioned house. 😉

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