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The History of False Teeth

Although he did wear dentures, it’s a myth that George Washington’s were wooden. In fact, he had at least one pair fashioned from hippopotamus ivory, human teeth, brass and lead. However, by the time a dentist carved Washington’s teeth, false teeth had already been around for thousands of years and perhaps for most of human history.

The Ancient World

More than 2,500 years ago, Egyptians threaded human teeth through wire to create a set of false teeth that they then wore. In Italy, Etruscans also wore dentures made of other sets of human teeth.

It is believed that the tribes that lived in today’s Mexico inserted the teeth of animals, probably wolves, into their gums to replace missing teeth. Mayans used stones, seashells and carved bits of bone into empty sockets. These materials fused to the gum lines and created an early version of today’s dental implants.

Washington may not have had a pair of wooden dentures, but someone in ancient Japan did. A set of wooden dentures believed to belong to a priestess were kept in place with suction. These date from the 15th century and are the oldest complete set of wooden dentures in existence.

Waterloo Teeth and the First Porcelain

A Frenchman named Alexis Duchateau invented the first set of porcelain dentures around 1774. However, they were not immediately popular because they were so unnaturally white. They also tended to chip easily.

As the 1800s dawned, much more popular than porcelain were Waterloo teeth. These were human teeth used as dentures named somewhat gruesomely for the practice of scavenging teeth off dead soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo, a practice that continued through the American Civil War.

However, in the meantime, in 1820, a goldsmith named Claudius Ash began making quality porcelain dentures mounted on 18-karat plates. Ash continued to lead the denture vanguard when his company started manufacturing false teeth made of Vulcanite in 1850. This remained the dominant material for dentures until the 20th century.

20th Century Dentures and Beyond

In the 20th century, acrylic resin and plastics replaced Vulcanite in dentures. Plastics are easy to mold to the size and shape of a person’s mouth and are much more comfortable to wear than dentures of past centuries. Today, dentures can be fashioned to look much like natural teeth.