Saturday, September 22, 2012

Washington's teeth ... not for the squeamish

One of several sets of Washington's false teeth
Despite his efforts to take care of his teeth throughout his life, George Washington had only a single remaining natural tooth by the time he was inaugurated as U.S. president in 1798, according to several of his biographers. By that time, he also had his first set of full dentures, made by dentist John Greenwood, who had previously also supplied him with partial dentures that hooked to his natural teeth. All of these various sets of false teeth were made primarily of a base carved from hippopotamus ivory, into which human or cow teeth were attached. Small screws and springs were also part of these state-of-the-art 18th century dentures.

Washington’s apparently ongoing, painful problems with his teeth and these dental contraptions over many years – issues that thankfully do not confront so many Americans today – are noted in several letters he wrote. For example, at least as early as May 1781 he wrote to another dentist, John Baker, seeking his help: 

Sir, A day or two ago I requested Col. Harrison to apply to you for a pair of Pincers to fasten the wire of my teeth.  I hope you furnished him with them. I now wish you would send me one of your scrapers as my teeth stand in need of cleaning, and I have little prospect of being in Philadelph. soon.It will come very safe by the Post & in return, the money shall be sent so soon as I know the cost of it. I am Sir Yr Very Hble Serv.  G. Washington

In another letter, to the dentist Greenwood and dated February 20, 1795, Washington offers his thanks for a new set  (his first complete set?) of false teeth and writes that he is enclosing $60 in payment:

Washington, with dentures seemingly in place,
in portrait by Gilbert Stuart
Sir, Your last letter, with its accompaniment, came safe to my hands on tuesday last. Enclosed you will receive sixty dollars in Bank notes of the United States. In addition to which, I pray you to accept my thanks for the ready attention which you have at all times, paid to my requests, and that you will believe me to be, with esteem, Sir … Your very Hble Serv. G. Washington

The $60 cost of those dentures was quite a sum in the late 18th century. In today’s dollars, that amount would be roughly equivalent to $1,090.

Portraits of Washington as an older man are notable for the puffy, slightly distorted appearance of his cheeks and lips, which many historians have attributed to his false teeth. But you have to wonder if … or why … he would have kept them inside his closed mouth, which couldn’t have been comfortable, for the many hours that he stood or sat still for a portrait. Was it that his lips and cheeks would have looked even worse if he not worn his dentures in place of his nonexistent natural teeth?


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