There’s no sound you enjoy more, I know, than the resounding crack as a tooth puller, expert or otherwise, yanks free a partially decayed tooth from your sweet mouth. Now consider such a procedure sans those delightful opiates you’re fond of consuming, and imagine every excruciating jolt of pain lancing into your very skull as the local barber, blacksmith, or anyone handy who owns a pair of pliers, twists and pulls ineffectually at that rotten chopper of yours until at last it wrenches clear with a sickening crunch.
Welcome to 18th century dental care.
The late 18th century gave us the best and worst of things. Positive developments such as the spinning jenny, the steam engine, the battery, sugar and the American Declaration of Independence (from the point of view of the Colonials). Bad things include the apex of the African slave trade, malaria, the Seven Years War, sugar, and the American Declaration of Independence (from the point of view of the English).
Specifically, sugar was a new and wondrous luxury, made bountiful for European and American palates by systematic exploitation and slavery (a commodity that was made quite literally bitter-sweet by virtue of the human cost of production). Soon, cane sugar was in everything from tea to sweet desserts, found in fashionable tea shops and cafés up and down England, consumed by both rich and poor, and with it came the dreaded gum and tooth disease.
Dentistry was not considered a medical discipline worthy of pursuit by respected doctors. There were simply tooth-pullers, assisted by those who held the unfortunate down. Tooth-extractors were literally anyone with the physical strength, desire, and a constitution hardy enough to handle the inevitable spewed profanity. Even surgeons, lower in status than physicians in the 18th century medical world, refused to perform such menial labors, and as such it was left to the barbers and blacksmiths to perform the thankless task. Neither of these professions were considered in any way experts in the art of pain relief and needless to say the procedure was astoundingly excruciating. One such quote from a Reverend Woodforde attests:
“My tooth pained me all night, got up a little after 5 this morning, and sent for one Reeves, a man who draws teeth in this parish, and about 7 he came and drew my tooth, but shockingly bad indeed, he broke away a great piece of my gum… it gave me exquisite pain all the day after, and my face was swelled prodigiously in the evening and much pain. Very bad and in much pain the whole day long. Gave the man who drew it 0. 2. 6. (two shillings)…. can’t see very well.“
In other words, teeth pulling was similar to politicians – painful, usually causing more harm than good, and you end up paying for the privilege. Indeed, the term ‘like pulling teeth’ certainly found origins in this century – barber-surgeons were known to use small hammers and chisels to help dislodge rotten teeth and would often the place the victims head between their legs whilst performing the ghastly work of extraction.
One such ‘advancement’ in the field of dental care was that of the dental or tooth key, a device modeled on the common door key. Placed into the mouth, the ‘key’ would affix below the offending tooth and then be turned, nay, jerked to one side or the other, which inevitably caused heavy blood loss, torturous pain and often only partially extracted teeth, the remaining fragments of which would have to be removed individually.
The circumstances weren’t completely hopeless and an understanding of tooth decay and dental hygiene began to emerge. Tooth-brushing was gradually encouraged to remove plaque and solid buildup. William Addis brought the miracle of toothbrushes to a grateful Western market, allegedly inventing the implement from broom bristles and a discarded bone whilst in jail for inciting a riot (Addis remains a popular brand to this day). Additionally, tooth transplants were well known, popularized by the infamous surgeon and biologist John Hunter of body snatching fame. Needed some fast cash in the 18th century? Poor? Got a relatively good head of teeth? I don’t think I have to fill in the gaps here, if you’ll forgive the pun.
And what might you use for toothpaste? Concoctions of dragon’s blood (a red plant resin) and cinnamon was sometimes used, others chewed on alum, a particularly foul tasting astringent. One revolutionary approach was suggested by famed and pioneering dentist-surgeon Pierre Fauchard, who as well as inventing the dental drill and introducing gold and lead teeth fillings, postured a slightly unsavory technique of cleanliness. In treatment of cavities and in maintaining basic teeth hygiene, Fauchard recommended rubbing the inside of the mouth with human urine.
It is not known whether the Frenchman practiced this technique himself or just recommended it to others – I’m hardly the first to suspect that dentists can be a touch sadistic at times.
So without anesthetic, remedies against infection, or anything but rudimentary medical knowledge on tooth care, Georgian people gleefully consumed as much sugar as their bodies would allow, rendering their slowly declining gum lines useless. Let this serve as a lesson: if tales of terrifying teeth-extraction or blackened, rotting mouths aren’t enough to give your daily dental regimen a minute more of your time, I don’t know what will.