Ever wonder why people never smiled in those 19th century family portraits? Some will tell you that since photography was such a rare occurrence, people wanted to treat the special occasion with appropriate dignity. Others propose that sitting for a photograph took so long back then, no one could manage to hold a decent looking smile without it slipping. But there’s another possibility. What if the serious miens of our ancestors were due to the fact that they wanted to hide their teeth?
Yesterday, my 13 year-old daughter got braces. These days, teens are more likely to wear them than not. It’s almost a rite of passage. After all, no one wants to endure the unsightliness of crooked teeth if there is a way to improve upon what nature wrought. But what of those poor Victorian souls who were stuck with misshapen smiles? Did they have any recourse?
By the mid- 1800s, dentists had begun exploring the realm of orthodontia and developing treatments for their patients. But in these early days, the deformity (or the patient’s vanity) would have to have been of significant proportion to motivate someone to submit to such creative dental inventions.
The instrument on the right was reportedly used to correct a crossbite in a 15-year-old girl in 1859. The telescopic bar across the bottom could be gradually lengthened to widen the palate while adjustable spur screws were used to reposition the incisors. The poor girl had to wear this contraption for several months. Can you imagine? I hope she had gorgeous teeth when she finished the process.
If the dear girl had waited a few years, she might have been able to try out one of the lovely specimens below. The one on the left is a head cap designed in 1866 for extra-oral traction. A gold frame covered the incisors, and elastic straps connected it to the beautiful head cap. Plop a bird and few feathers on that, and she could have started a new millinery fashion. But if she really wanted a cap to stop traffic, she could wait a few years more, and in 1875 become the proud owner of the tooth regulating machine on the right. Just think of the five wagon pile-up that would ensue on main street when she stepped out in such a gripping piece. The steel rod was attached to the crooked tooth by an elastic ring. Then they would tighten the elastic strap between the head cap and the steel rod in order to produce the necessary traction.
By the turn of the century, braces had become more humane. Dentists figured out how to wrap bands and wires around teeth. In order to do this, though, they needed malleable metal. So what did they choose? Gold, of course. Fourteen- to 18-karat gold was commonly used for wires, bands, clasps, etc. And you thought braces were expensive now! Just think what it would be like if your teenager had a mouth full of gold. Thank heaven for stainless steel and modern advancements!
All in all, I must say I’m thankful to be a 21st century parent. And my daughter is much happier with the results this way, too.