Friday, May 16, 2014

Avoiding the Tooth-Pullers: Dental Hygiene, Eighteenth-Century Style

by Diane Scott Lewis

Up through the seventeenth century, dental care was erratic. Tooth extraction was usually performed by barber-surgeons and had a horrific and painful connotation. That pain and irregularity continued into the eighteenth century. Teeth were hammered loose and jerked out sideways. Sometimes the patient was laid out on the floor with his head between the surgeon’s knees for the extraction of rotten teeth.

To advertise their services as "tooth-pullers," these barber-surgeons hung rows of rotten teeth outside their shops.

Thankfully the dental field did evolve in this century. Frenchman Pierre Fauchard (1678 –1761) is considered the father of modern dentistry. A highly skilled surgeon, he made remarkable improvements in dental instruments, often adapting tools from watch makers, jewelers and even barbers. He introduced dental fillings as treatment for dental cavities. He insisted that sugar derivate acids like tartaric acid were responsible for dental decay—a man ahead of his time.

In Britain "Operators for the teeth" developed into "dentists." Samuel Darkin, who practiced in Whitechapel in the 1760’s, advertised himself as "Surgeon-dentist to his Majesty; Families attended by the year." Several women combined dentistry with other skills, such as the enterprising Madame Silvie who made and fitted artificial teeth. "Those who don’t chuse to make their grievances known by asking for the Artificial Teeth-maker may ask for the Gold Snuff-box and Tweezer-case Maker."

British surgeon John Hunter penned two important books in this time period, Natural History of Human Teeth (1771 ) and Practical Treatise on the Diseases of the Teeth (1778). In 1763 he entered into a period of collaboration with the London-based dentist James Spence. Hunter theorized the possibility of tooth transplants from one person to another.

The fear of tooth-pulling remained widespread (and without modern pain-killers it was understandable). After her niece’s excruciating experience, Jane Austen declared she would not let Mr. Spence "look at my teeth for a shilling a tooth and double it!"

Horse hair toothbrush
Basic dental hygiene was little more than a toothpick and wiping down your gums with a cloth. Women suffered tooth loss worse than men due to vitamin loss during pregnancy. The poor also struggled with dental care. They were more concerned with buying food for their family than paying for tooth powders and the newly invented mass-produced toothbrush.

But dental procedures and care gained respect in the later eighteenth century. To avoid the pain of tooth extraction, or the expense of dentures, the art of teeth cleaning advanced.

England’s William Addis (a rag trader) is believed to have invented the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1780. In 1770, jailed for causing a riot, he found the prison method to clean teeth—rubbing a rag with soot and salt over your teeth—ineffective. From one of his meals, he saved a small animal bone, drilled it with holes, and obtained bristles from a guard. He tied the bristles into tufts in the holes and sealed them with glue. After his release, he started a business that would manufacture his toothbrushes, and he became very rich.

With the desire for better hygiene came the marketing of toothpaste and powders. These were hyped as not only keeping teeth clean but in a time of rampant pyorrhoea and scurvy, useful for fastening in those pesky loose teeth. Toothpowder came in a ceramic pot and was available either as a powder or paste. The ingredients could include crushed bones, oyster shells and pumice. The rich applied it with brushes and the poor with their fingers. 

A 1780 recipe for tooth powder:

1 1/2 oz. dragons blood (not easy to find I imagine)
1 1/2 oz. cinnamon; and 1 oz. burnt alum.
Beat the above ingredients together and use every second day.

Horace Walpole put his faith in alum. He’d occasionally dissolve a lump in his mouth to keep his teeth strong. It must have tasted terrible.

Fauchard recommended using your own urine to clean your teeth—something that was always handy. Another method was bashing the end of a wooden skewer, to render it brush-like: "You must clean your teeth with this brush alone...once a fortnight, not oftener, dip your skewer brush into a few grains of gunpowder..."

Not surprisingly, most of these concoctions and methods did more harm than good by destroying tooth enamel. Lord Chesterfield warned against the use of these sticks or any hard surface, as they "destroy the varnish of the teeth." Smart man.

Delicate gold-handled toothbrushes, sometimes with replaceable heads, were included in the cases of toilet instruments for the rich. Toothpicks made of quills were the eighteenth-century dental floss and were kept in pretty jeweled boxes. Sounds more for show than practical use.

Fortunately for us, the knowledge and advantage of dental hygiene improved greatly in the years to come.

Sources: Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Picard, and Wikipedia.

My eighteenth-century characters, all strong-willed women, thankfully had healthy teeth: check out my website to visit the wilds of Cornwall:


  1. Great post...I'm off to brush my teeth!

  2. Anecdote has it that James Brindley suffered from shocking tooth-ache. Rev F H Egerton, a relative of Brindley's employer the Duke of Bridgewater, claims Brindley would say 'If it spites me, I will spite it,' before washing his mouth 'with very cold water, and then again with very warm; and then again with cold, till he roared with pain.'
    No doubt at that stage finding a tooth-drawer, barber surgeon - even, at a pinch, a farrier - to pull the thing out would have been blest relief.

  3. Really interesting post. So thankful to live in a time of good dental care.

  4. Great post. Thank goodness we don't have to gargle tooth powder anymore!

  5. I'm very interested as I am planning to research the entire history of dental hygiene from the beginning of man to today.


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