Tooth loss, although these days associated with poor modern diets which tend to be high in sugar and fat, has been a problem for humans for as long as we have been in existence. In the past tooth loss was more often the result of malnutrition in general and certain diseases, although even in ancient times the food people ate was a contributing factor. For instance, early breads were known to have contained sand, as a result of the primitive flour milling process. This sand of course wore down teeth rapidly, resulting in damage and decay. Historians confirm that dentures have been in use to replace lost teeth since around 700 B.C.
Historically, having missing teeth was far more than a mere nuisance. Soft foods were not readily available, and it was not unheard of for people without any teeth to simply starve to death. Often a lack of teeth caused problems with an individual’s social standing. In the Middle Ages and later those in poor health were often shunned out of fear, and missing teeth was widely held to be a sign of disease. A sure sign of a woman’s marriageability in the Middle Ages was not her general physical beauty but how good her teeth were.
The first recognizable set of dentures discovered certainly do date back to 700 B.C., but there is ample evidence that ceremonial sets of dentures may have been worn as long as 4,500 years ago. These ceremonial dentures were not designed to replace lost teeth but rather to cover their normal appearance, much like the rappers golden “grilles” of the 21st Century which also serve no purpose other than ostentatious decoration. Dentures finally became readily available in the mid 1500s, but at great financial cost, and were considered a luxury only for the wealthy for centuries.
The earliest dentures were crafted from animal bone, or made directly from the human teeth of others, often taken from those lying dead on the battlefield. These stolen teeth were of course a very poor solution, and may have been responsible for all kinds of infections that were impossible to treat centuries ago. The first porcelain dentures began appearing around 1774, and fairly quickly replaced other materials used in denture making. These porcelain falsies were of course far more durable and attractive than their crude predecessors but the excessive whiteness still made it obvious to all that a person was wearing dentures.
Undoubtedly the most famous dentures belonged to President George Washington. Washington began to lose his teeth in his early twenties as a result of frequent childhood illnesses that called for a medication called Calomel that permanently damages natural tooth enamel. The myth that says that Washington’s dentures were wooden is however false. The dentures he wore throughout his Presidency were crafted from several expensive materials. The base was made from genuine hippopotamus ivory and the teeth themselves were a mixture of carved elephant ivory and human cadaver teeth. He had several pairs made over the years, but not of them ever contained wood of any kind. Where that rumor began is unclear.