Today’s second article is on George Washington’s teeth.
The mouth of George Washington has a number of myths attached to it, including the tale of the cherry tree, but the most persistent is that he had wooden dentures. However, that is unequivocally false and there is not a shred of evidence to support it. Plagued with tooth decay from the age of 22, Washington brushed his teeth every day but suffered from poor oral hygiene because of the era in which he lived. Calomel, or mercury chloride, was a common treatment for many ailments but had a terrible side effect: the patient’s hair and teeth would fall out if large doses were given, like the ones Washington was prescribed. (Painting: Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, The First Good President, 1797).
By the time he was 57, Washington had lost all of his natural teeth. In fact, when he was inaugurated in 1789, he only had one real tooth left and was already wearing a full set of dentures made by John Greenwood. Base of that first set was made of hippopotamus ivory, the top teeth were made from ivory and the bottom teeth were eight human teeth, fastened to the base by gold pivots. Over the next few years, Washington had at least four more sets of dentures ordered, to fix a number of problems he felt they caused. (Painting: Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, 1796).
Washington also had a tendency to repair his own dentures, usually with animal teeth, but he also participated in a common practice of the day: he would get teeth from the mouths of his own slaves. However, unlike many other denture-wearing slave-owners, Washington would pay willing donors for their teeth. (Some would forcefully remove them from the slaves’ mouths, claiming they had no rights since they were property.) You can get a good idea of Washington’s dental health by looking at his official portraits, as his cheeks began to puff out when he received his larger dentures. (Painting: John Trubmull’s General George Washington at Trenton, 1792)
No one knows the particular origin of the wooden teeth myth but it may have something to do with the fact Washington’s ivory dentures became stained over time, giving them a brown, grainy look. In addition, wooden teeth would be seen as a sign of humility, meant to distinguish Washington from his monarch counterparts. But none of Washington’s diaries mention wood as a material used for his dentures and the only surviving examples have been analyzed and found to be constructed of gold, ivory, lead, human and animal teeth. (Teeth: George Washington’s from 1790)