Smiling Through History, Part 2
After reading the first post on Smiling Through History, you know that people cleaned their mouths/teeth on a regular basis. But sometimes having healthy teeth isn’t enough, sometimes we want more. Whether it be a straighter smile, a smile without teeth missing, a whiter smile or a blacker smile. Whoa…wait…a blacker smile???
Yup, in ancient Japan, it was common for people to blacken their teeth with a method called ohaguro. The Japanese thought black lacquered things were incredibly beautiful and teeth were no different. Married women, aristocrats, geishas and soldiers (before battle) typically painted their teeth black. The blend of acetic acid and dissolved iron was painted on the teeth either once a day or once every few days. Interestingly enough, those who painted their teeth black typically had healthier teeth as the dye acted as a sort of sealant over the teeth and prevented decay. This tradition was banned back in the late 19th century, but some ignore the ban and still continue to blacken their teeth to this day.
Europeans and Romans, however, were not unlike us in their desire for brilliantly white teeth. Romans used to swish with urine on a daily basis for a whiter smile. This actually worked as the ammonia in urine helped to lift stains of recently consumed food/wine from their teeth. Don’t get me wrong, you will not find me swishing with pee any time soon – I’m just saying I’m surprised it worked is all. Europeans had a much more effective method…though quite painful. If one wanted whiter teeth, they went to their local barber-surgeon who would file a layer or two of enamel away and drip acetic acid onto the freshly sanded teeth. The white would last for a while, several months or several years, depending on the person’s genes/diet, etc. But after a while, the thin enamel would not hold up and bacteria would start to seep into the teeth. Eventually, that brilliant white smile would turn into a mouthful of rotten teeth. Such was the price of vanity…
What happened if someone lost a tooth back in ancient times? Or worse…what if they lost all of their teeth? Believe it or not, there were solutions for all of this. As modern as we believe dental implants to be, the Mayans were implanting tooth shaped stone into the jaw all the way back in 600 A.D. as was uncovered in some remains. I’m sure they weren’t up to par with the impossible-to-tell-they’re-fake implants of today, but pretty darn incredible if you ask me.
Per dentures, these were originally made with teeth. Real teeth. Either those of dead animals or those of dead people. I shudder to even think of eating food with a mouthful of dead people’s teeth. But I guess if it comes to either starving to death or using corpse teeth, well… Earlier dentures were also made of wood. Several examples were found in Japan dating back to the 1500’s – unlike other dentures from around the world at that time frame, these suctioned onto the roof of the mouth like the dentures of today. In regards to wooden dentures, George Washington did not have them. His were most likely made of ivory. Unfortunately, he was just a few years shy of receiving a porcelain set that would have been affixed with springs and porcelain paste.
Efforts of early dentists were also applied to the correct of crooked teeth. The early model for braces was first invented in the mid 1700’s and looked more like a horseshoe than the braces of today. About 70 years later, a more modern-looking wire bracket style of braces was invented.
I’m not being wholly honest – Braces actually date way before that first horse-shoe shaped attempt. They just weren’t used for the living. Strands of gold/metal wire and even cat gut (which is string made of…yup, cat guts) were looped around the teeth of dead Romans and Etruscans to keep their teeth from coming loose in the afterlife.
Old school dentists even went above and beyond with dental bling than we do today. Yeah, we’ve got gold teeth, but the Mayans had gem-encrusted teeth. Nothing says gorgeous like a mouthful of precious stones glinting in the sun, right? These things were attached with a little drilling here and a little cramming there and voila! A dazzling smile.
So, next time you need to go to the dentist for a little cosmetic work, think back to the insanity of what you’ve read and be grateful for those sterile tools…and the use of Novocain. Lots and lots of Novocain. J