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.
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?