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Wooden Teeth

February 9th, 2012

We’re approaching Washington’s Birthday, so what about it, did George Washington really have wooden false teeth?  The answer is no.  No wood would last very long in the challenging environment of the mouth. His teeth were made of gold bases that were swedged or hammered on an impression of his mouth and to these bases were attached hand carved ivory teeth.  The top and bottom were connected by springs at the back that were folded, putting pressure on the dentures and holding them somewhat in place.  General Washington never liked wearing them and complained about the pain in almost every letter home.  To make them more bearable, he would soak them to give them a better taste; In port wine!  The tannens in the wine stained the ivory to a dark brown color, looking like wood.
It wasn’t until the discovery of vulcanized rubber in the mid 1800’s, that better fitting dentures came along.  Still, the early denture bases were black in color, with the more expensive pink material used in the front only.  If they broke, they could not be repaired and often the fit was not good enough to have them worn without adhesives.  And the patent lawsuits over Vulcanite made it expensive to use.
With the development of acrylic plastics in the early 20th century, the modern denture came of age and the improved fit and functionality became the norm.  Today, we expect that artificial teeth will look natural and feel comfortable without the need for soaking in wine.
Here are some additional interesting dental facts about our first president.  At the time of his inauguration, he had only 1 remaining tooth.  His favorite dentist was John Greenwood of New York City but he had false teeth made by several dentists and technicians.  Probably the most well known was the silversmith and patriot, Paul Revere.  The severe loss of bone and tooth support is evidenced in Washington’s later portraits.  Gilbert Stewart placed cotton in his cheeks for the presidential portrait, giving him what has been described as a “grand motherly” appearance.  Check it out on the dollar bill.

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