Waterloo Teeth

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I came across an interesting bit of trivia the other day.  Interesting in a macabre, high-ick-factor kind of way.   It seems early dentures were created utilizing actual human teeth.  While porcelain teeth were developed in 1774, these early models were prone to chipping and breakage and were considered inferior to dentures utilizing real teeth.  Because of the scarcity of healthy human teeth, animal teeth were sometimes employed.  Some sets of teeth were carved from a single chunk of bone or ivory.  But none of these looked like the real thing and normally did not fit well enough to allow for eating or even clear speech.  The biggest problem, however, was the fact that there was no enamel on these materials.  That meant decay set in all too soon.  Which in turn led to a rotten taste in the mouth and unpleasant breath odor.  This problem was one of the reasons for the rise in use of fans as a fashion accessory.

As a side note, contrary to legend, George Washington’s dentures were not made of wood, but of animal teeth.  He actually owned at least four sets.  They included a set composed mostly of hippopotamus teeth, one of horse teeth, of gold teeth and of human teeth.  The image to the left is one of his actual sets, preserved in a museum.

Finding high quality human teeth to implant in dentures was a problem for these early dental pioneers.  The sources most accessible were less than desirable – corpses from potter’s fields, teeth pulled from dental patients, teeth purchased and pulled from the desperately impoverished.  For obvious reasons, none of these sources proved ideal.  Since the supply was limited, prices were quite dear.  Dentists were eager to find a plentiful source of healthy human teeth.

Then, in 1815, the Battle of Waterloo provided a gruesome bonanza.  50,000 men fell that day, most of whom were young, healthy and generally had good quality teeth.  Battlefield scavengers added pulling teeth to their plunder of the corpses, and sad to say, the not-yet-dead.  Most of these teeth made their way back to Britain – by the barrel full.  The top-quality dentures that resulted from this bounty were worn with much pride by the members of the affluent class as a sort of patriotic trophy and became known as Waterloo teeth. 

Waterloo 02

Over time, that name came to be used for any teeth taken from a battlefield.  Even though a satisfactory process for creating quality artificial teeth was developed in the 1840’s, as late as the American Civil War human teeth were still being harvested from battlefields.   

Before you think too harshly of this practice, however, you might stop and consider how future generation will view the fact that the most prized wigs and toupees of our generation are those made from human hair.

So, what do you think?  Gruesome?  Icky?  Cool?

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

42 thoughts on “Waterloo Teeth”

  1. Hi Winnie, fascinating. I just had no idea about the harvesting of teeth. Wow. I did know GW had false teeth, both wooden and animal.

    Somehow using other people’s teeth seems creepier than human hair wigs. But with some guy in Spain getting a full face transplant the other day, what do I know LOL

    Good way to start the week! oxoxoxox

  2. i can’t imagine the strength it would take to rip teeth out of the jaws of all those men
    how gross
    i think i would rather have decent looking animal teeth in my mouth than a humans…i don’t know why…but i think so
    hopefully it never comes to that 🙂

    looks like they wouldn’t have fit real well either…i cringe at denistry today…i should woulda hated it then!

  3. Well, Winnie, your entry woke me up this morning. I remember as a kid being so fascinated with George Washington’s wooden teeth.

    I just have to ask…did you find out this trivia researching your next book? Hmmmm.

    Thanks for the trivia…I have set about this year making sure I learn one new thing each day. Didn’t expect to find it first thing in the morning though. LOL.

  4. Hi Winnie! LOL! Next time I want to avoid flossing, I’m going to think about this post. I’ll keep my own teeth, thank you very much! This is definitely icky and gruesome, but people do what they have to do to survive.

    I’m wondering if the hero for your next book is going to be a dentist 🙂

  5. Eeww. I can’t imagine wearing teeth that were in process of rotting. That’s disgusting! I think I’d almost rather have a designated chewer (although that’s a pretty yucky prospect, too.)

  6. Tanya – interesting about the full face trnsplant, I hadn’t heard that one. Love learning something new

    Tabitha – I hear you about finding trips to the dentist cringe-worthy. The worst part for me is having to listen to the sound that drill makes {shudder}

  7. Julie – LOL sorry if I woke you up with something icky this morning. And yes I came across it while researching a book, but it was just one of those tangential notes, nothing to do with my actual area of research (though there is no telling when it may show up in a story now….)

  8. I think ‘high ick factor’ is fair.
    Don’t we just find the most amazing stuff when we research. I’ve never heard of this before. I always heard George Washington’s teeth were wooden.

    Thanks (sort of…ick) for the truth, Winnie. 🙂

  9. Winnie, I had no idea the early dentures were made from real teeth. Oh my gosh! That would be so gross. But I guess if you were desperate for teeth, anything would work, even animal teeth. Yuck! And I’d always heard that George Washington had wooden teeth. I never knew any different. Thanks for an interesting blog. I learned some things.

  10. Karen & Regina – my reaction seems to lean to the ‘ick’ side as well

    Victoria – You’re right, necessity being the mother of invention and all that. And no, I’m not going to be exploring the world of dentistry in my next book….

  11. I’m just amazed, Vicki. Poor George, no wonder he isn’t smiling on the $ bill! Ow. And that Waterloo story, yikes!
    When I was a kid, people who reached a certain age had all their teeth pulled and wore dentures. My parents were among the rare ones who kept their teeth. As for me I’m grateful to live in modern times. A few years ago I had one lost but essential tooth replaced with an implant. Those things are the best!

  12. Elizabeth – yes, my parents number among those who wear full dentures. As far as where I find this stuff, it’s amazing what gets buried among the footnotes of historical research articles…

  13. I often wonder what the dentists of this century will do besides cleaning teeth and cosmetic dentistry. My kids, as yours probably did, got sealants around 6 and have had NO cavities.

    Full sets of dentures are becoming less and less necessary as dental care increases each generation.

    But who was the ghoulish “smarty” that decided to harvest teeth from dead soldiers. I guess he was just as glad to go into obscurity. ICK!
    I made my fortune on deadmen’s teeth–not good dinner conversation.

  14. Hi Winnie! I hope it’s okay to go off topic for a minite. Just finished reading your book, What Matters Most. You are such an accomplished writer!

  15. I truly miss you, my friend. Winnie and I have been friends since we were little girls. Remember that Slumber Party when we were children where my Dad scared the heck out of all of us? He was BIG into being spooky. He still uses puppets and uses his ventriloquist dummies to scare the great-granchildren! Ah, the memories!!!

  16. Hi Winnie, is a bit eerie to think have teeth that have been torn from men and even more it is to imagine yourself in someone else’s mouth. I think I would have preferred to be without teeth:)!

  17. Speaking of teeth, there was a really gruesome fact you noted in the harvesting of teeth on the battlefield. It was particularly hard to imagine those who pulled the teeth of still living victims! How cruel and barbaric!

  18. Shay – right back atcha! I’m thrilled that we’ve reconnected and oh my yes I do remember that slumber party – that does take me back…
    And yes, the harvesting of teeth from the still-living injured was a particularly gruesome, heinous act.

  19. Veronica – hard to understand what it was like for the people back then. So glad I live in these times where we have such better access to modern medical and hygiene practices

  20. What I wondered too was how did the dentists back then affix natural teeth in dentures? I looked at the pictures you posted of Geoge Washington’s teeth and they almost seemed to be glued together, with not much space, if any, between each of the teeth.

  21. Hi Winnie!

    I’d always heard this about George Washington had wooden teeth. Thanks for setting that legend straight. Interesting to see the teeth he actually did have.

    Interestingly if anyone has ever read the work of Dr. Weston A. Price — a dentist, who toured the world in search of the answer to cavities and teeth — and found that in all native societies before the advent of processed food, natives kept their teeth fully and completely — no crooked teeth — until their death. Makes me wonder what kind of food our ancestors were eating. I know that England had a thing about putting non-food items into food in order to “make a profit.” I wonder if these things came to our country at this time, also.

    Remember the old sayings you see in research books — on teeth as strong as and Indian’s? Interesting.

  22. Very interesting post. The thought of people swarming the battlefield with pliers and buckets, rolling bodies, and prying mouths open is a bit disturbing. Can you imagine the agony caused to those who were injured and not yet dead. (My imagination is way too vivid)
    If they were truly desperate, I’d think they would be more likely to check pocket to steal what money or other items they could. To plan ahead and make an enterprise of gathering teeth is gruesome opportunism.
    What is even more icky is the fact that the affluent class who wore these dentures were proud of them and considered them patriotic trophies. The thought of someone ripping my son’s, nephew’s, or husband’s mouth apart to get his teeth out for profit certainly wouldn’t appeal.

  23. Karen – I’ve never read the works of Dr. Price and it is interesting about the quality of teeth before the introduction of processed food. In fact, some of the articles I read while researching this blog indicated that the teeth replacement issue became much more severe in Britain after the introduction of sugar

  24. Teeth from a battle field – shivers! I’ll keep my own, thanks! I’m a huge wimp about the dentist. I can’t imagine what it was like back then, when people died from complications of abscessed teeth.

  25. Very interesting post. The thought of people swarming the battlefield with pliers and buckets, rolling bodies, and prying mouths open is a bit disturbing. Can you imagine the agony caused to those who were injured and not yet dead. (My imagination is way too vivid)
    If they were truly desperate, I’d think they would be more likely to check pocket to steal what money or other items they could. To plan ahead and make an enterprise of gathering teeth is gruesome opportunism.
    What is even more icky is the fact that the affluent class who wore these dentures were proud of them and considered them patriotic trophies. The thought of someone ripping my son’s, nephew’s, or husband’s mouth apart to get his teeth out for profit certainly wouldn’t appeal.

  26. Is Icky-cool an option, Winnie? Wow, what a thought.
    Funny story- One of my clients (traumatic brain injury patient) has a tendency for her upper dentures to come loose. So I’ll be in the middle of giving her speech therapy and her teeth with fall out. It’s very difficult to say the /f/ and ‘th’ sounds without your top teeth 🙂

  27. Pepper – LOL, Icky-cool is definitely an option. Sort of like those wrecks on the side of the road you can’t help but stare at even though you know you shouldn’t…

  28. All I can say is UGH! My husband used to joke that he got his false teeth from “a barrell at the funeral home” and always grossed me out with that one!

    Interesting facts though.

    PamT

  29. Pamela – LOL ‘Ugh’ seems to be the reaction of the majority of commenters today. And that barrell at the funeral home comment seems to be too spot on for comfort!

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