(+) Our Ancestors’ Dental Care

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

Life in the “good old days” wasn’t always so good. For instance, one has to wonder about dental care as practiced by our ancestors. Ready-made toothbrushes and toothpaste were not available until the mid-1800s. Prior to that, everyone had to make their own.

Throughout the Middle Ages, most people simply rubbed salt on their teeth.

Some people made up their own dentifrice and rubbed the resulting powder on their teeth with a small stick, called a “toothstick,” with a rag over one end. This was the forerunner of the toothbrush.

By the 1700s medical knowledge improved to the point that doctors began to understand the importance of proper dental care. Toothpaste, properly called dentifrice, was made at home. Here is one such recipe:

…burned hartshorn, powdered oyster shell and white tartar. Also a mouthwash of sal ammoniac and water. Another uses cream of tartar, gum myrrh and oil of cloves. And if all this good dental care fails, you may get a set of artificial ones made from the tusks of the hippopotamus, or sea horse, or from the teeth of some domestick [sic.] animals. Teeth made of ivory or bone soon become discoloured and begin to decay and render the breath offensive.

The above recipe doesn’t result in a paste similar to what we squeeze out of tubes today. It apparently creates a dry powder, which is then rubbed onto the rag on the end of a dental stick. Those whose teeth rotted in spite of this care might consider false teeth made from hippo or walrus (“sea horse”) tusks or the bone of some farm animal. This was the best option available to our ancestors – at least, those who had the access and money to obtain it. The reality is that very few could afford such “luxuries.” Most of our ancestors simply had their decaying teeth pulled (which I am sure was unpleasant before the invention of novocain) and simply went without false teeth.

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