Say Cheese!

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.

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

18 thoughts on “Say Cheese!”

  1. Hi Karen – So glad we live in modern times. Can’t imagine how primitive some of the dental work was back then. My kids wore metal braces, but now they even have those clear ones. I see adult wearing those! Your daughter will have a gorgeous smile when all is said and done!!

  2. Thanks, Charlene. I surivived 3 years of braces in the 80s along with headgear and two oral surgeries, so when I heard the orthodondist say the treatment would be about 18 months, I was so happy. She’s going to have it much easier than I did.

  3. Hi Karen, When I saw that cross-bite correction device, I knew immediately what it did. My oldest son had a palate widener. Awful! Even in modern times, it was miserable. It wasn’t nearly as horrendous as the one in the picture and it did the trick, but it wasn’t fun.

    And to think… now we have invisible braces and kids change the bands to match holidays! My youngest son once did orange and black for Halloween. Scary!

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  4. I’ve heard about those palate wideners. Glad I never had to go through that!

    My daughter’s school colors are purple and gold, so she got yellow and purple bands that alternate all through her mouth. That’s still a little weird to me, but anything to make them more fun for the kids!

  5. Karen, I had no idea that people were concerned with straight teeth so far back. And what torturous devices that were available! Good grief! You’d have to be really desperate to resort to wearing those. Very interesting blog, my new Filly sister.

    Your daughter is gorgeous. I hope she finds her braces easier to wear than I did. I hated all that metal in my mouth. And it was very painful. My mouth stayed sore the whole time I had them on. I never was so happy to get them off. It’ll be fascinating to see what new advances come along next.

  6. Thanks, Linda. My husband and I both went through braces ourselves, so we have a lot of sympathy. She ate yogurt for breakfast this morning, and I think she packed some microwaveable soup for lunch at school. At least we have a great excuse to eat ice cream!

  7. Hooray for modern technology… I know several of my nieces have had braces and like you said it is a right of passage.. every girl especially wants that Million dollar smile..

  8. So true, Kathleen. It really does make a huge difference and is great for their self confidence. And since so many wear them, there’s not really a stigma associated with the braces themselves anymore. Hooray!

  9. Awesome post, Karen! And great illustrations. Good luck to your daughter. It’ll be worth it. We put two kids through orthodontia and boy, am I glad we didn’t have to pay for gold wires! Those bills were gnarly enough. Never had them myself, and the dentist keeps saying I could use them. Yeah, right. I’d rather go to Hawaii. oxoxox

  10. I don’t think I would ever be vain enough or desperate enough to submit to the devices you found. It hurts just to think of it. One has to wonder how good the results were.
    One of our daughters had braces, the other had an orthodontic procedure using the Frankel device. Very different in the way they work and the end results. The Frankel spreads the jaw so the teeth have room to grow and straighten. It works beautifully and doesn’t require retainers. When our other daughter needed her teeth straightened, we had moved and no one in the new area did that particular procedure, so she got braces. Both work, but I will say I like the Frankel results better.

    Thanks for the interesting post. Your daughter is a sweetheart. Hope she does well with the braces.

  11. Thanks, Patricia. I’ve never heard of the Frankel devise. I’m intrigued. Our orthodontist didn’t mention it, so either he’s not trained in it or it wasn’t suitable for my daughter’s bite issues. I just might have to google it, though, to learn more. I’ve two more kiddos coming up the orthodontia path not far behind their big sister.

  12. That’s what I was thinking when I saw those pictures. Who would do that to themselves? Then I had flashbacks to the headgear I wore that strapped around my neck with thick metal rods that clicked into my braces. Not that different from that atrocious head cap.

  13. I wish braces were all that DD2 had to endure!
    She had such a horrific under bite and several
    facial irregularities that she had to have a
    joint procedure done by an orthodontist & a
    cosmetic surgeon. In her senior class, she was
    known as the girl with the $20,000 face! Thank
    goodness for insurance!

    Pat Cochran

  14. Wow, Pat. Am I ever counting my blessings. It sounds like she really endured a lot. We don’t have dental insurance, so I’m glad we’re not facing that kind of experience.

    Hmm…Maybe I could sell more books if I advertise that a significant portion of the proceeds will be donated to a dental fund for needy children with crooked teeth. MY needy children. Ha!

  15. Your daughter is a cutie with or without braces, Karen.
    Ever notice how many British actors and actresses have crooked teeth – as opposed to those perfect American whities? As someone who grew up in a small town where you kept the teeth you were born with, it’s kind of comforting to see the natural look.

  16. Thanks, Elizabeth. Neith my dad nor my brother every had braces, and I can see my dad (who I lost when I was 16) when I look at my brother’s smile. I see the same teeth when I look at my oldest son. I almost regret the plan to give him braces because I’ll lose some of that resemmblance, but his poor mouth is so crowded, he has to lose two baby teeth to make room for one permanent one. He needs the braces.

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