Edentulous: A Brief History of Dentures

Around 700BC, Etruscans in northern Italy made dentures out of human or animal teeth. Although these materials deteriorated quickly, the dentures were easy to produce and remained popular until the mid 1800s. An important contributor to denture development was dietary changes. Sugar was the main culprit in increased tooth decay during the 18th Century. With the industrialization of Victorian England, between 1860 and 1890, British per capita sugar consumption increased 500 percent.

Ivory dentures were popular in the 1700s, made from natural materials including walrus, elephant, or hippopotamus.

George Washington teethOne of the most famous early denture wearers was the first U.S. President, George Washington. Contrary to popular belief, however, Washington's dentures were not made of wood. Washington sported some of the highest quality false teeth of the time, consisting of a denture plate made of carved hippopotamus ivory into which human teeth (along with parts of both horse and donkey teeth) were fitted. Around 1774, Alexis Duchâteau crafted the first porcelain dentures. But these were prone to chip and also tended to appear too white to be convincing. Human teeth, or "Waterloo teeth"-- named for dead soldiers' teeth plucked from the battlefield after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo-- were in higher demand. Waterloo teeth were riveted into the base of animal ivory.

In 1820, a Westminster silversmith and goldsmith named Claudius Ash was asked to craft new and improved dentures. At the time, most false teeth were still made from ivory (which was prone to discoloring) or from human teeth. The real teeth were extracted from soldiers' corpses or executed criminals, procured by grave-robbers, or even obtained from direct sale by the desperately impoverished. (What conclusions might one draw from a comparison to modern black market organ sale?) Claudius Ash mounted porcelain on 18-karat gold plates, with gold springs and swivels. These new dentures were superior both aesthetically and functionally to the older models. Still improving, from the 1850s onward, dentures were made of Vulcanite, a form of hardened rubber into which porcelain teeth were set. Claudius Ash’s company was the leading European manufacturer of dental Vulcanite. In the 20th century, acrylic resin and other plastics became materials of choice.

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