A History of Dentures: The Ancient Origins of Dental Hardware

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Carved ivory dentures from the 18th century

In 2006, archaeologists in Mexico discovered the skeleton of a 4500 year old man. These archaeologists were shocked to realize that this ancient human may have actually been wearing a set of ceremonial dentures at the time of his death; the oldest false teeth yet discovered. Now, the scientists didn’t actually find the dentures themselves; but there was strong evidence to this fact in that the man’s front teeth appear to have been ground down for some reason, which led them to believe that this must have been done in order to make room for the fake teeth, which may have been some sort of animal teeth. Perhaps there are other good reasons to grind down one’s teeth, but paleontologists are rather certain that this is good evidence that false teeth have history much longer than previously suspected.

Modern and Historical Dentures

Dentures, or false teeth, today are made out of all different sorts of rubbers and plastics, but as a species, humans haven’t always had ready access to space-age rubber and plastics, so it seems quite obvious that dentures were not always made from these things.

In the past, false teeth have been made out of ivory, bone, porcelain, and, conveniently enough, actual human teeth, dating from as early as Etruscan civilizations of modern-day Italy in the pre-Roman period around 700 B.C. and on.

There are reports of men scavenging the aftermaths of battlefields during the Napoleonic wars, armed with nothing but a set of pliers, collecting the choicest teeth from the fallen soldiers in hopes of using them in other mouths. Unfortunately, this left those who could afford to pay the high price of the dentures made from these teeth stuck with what they got, which were usually substandard; either oddly colored, the wrong size, or quite simply rotten.

Porcelain gradually replaced human teeth as the denture material of choice for the wealthy, though these tended to chip rather easily, and were often a little too white to give the appearance of realism in the time before fluoride and Crest Whitestrips.

Famous Dentures

Any discussion on the subject of dentures, one would certainly be amiss not to mention America’s founding father, President George Washington, perhaps the most famous wearer of dentures in all of history.

Washington’s dentures in legend were said to be made from wood, but this is quite simply not true. They were, in fact, the most advanced dentures of the day, made from a combination of Hippopotamus, Walrus, and Elephant Ivory, Pony, Horse and Human Teeth. This may seem a bit excessive, but better excessive than toothless.

One other fact about dentures that most people don’t realize:

One of the biggest problems with wearing dentures is that the mouth must be trained to realize that these new things in the oral cavity aren’t actually food. When a person first starts wearing dentures, the brain is often fooled into thinking that the mouth is full of something edible, and starts sending messages to the salivary glands, telling them to get to work. So, the first obstacle one must overcome to wear dentures is an abundance of spit.

One wonders how those first denture wearers six millennia ago dealt with this problem.