The story of Washington’s teeth is worthy of a volume of it’s own. Certainly their own post. They were never made of wood – that just would have been too, too, plebian for Geordie. Rather, he had several sets made over the years of an assortment of materials from lead through to an extraordinary contrivance made of hippopotamus ivory with gold fittings held together with springs. The effort of keeping these held shut in his head is said to account for that rather strained look on the portrait of him that adorns the dollar bill bank notes.
They chafed. Well they might if they were, as we believe, trying to spring open at every turn. Watching Washington eat must have been a real treat. They cut his mouth and he needed to pack his gums with cotton to protect them – which may also add to the look of concentration in the portrait.
The damage to his teeth was caused, if Adams is to be believed, by a party trick from Washington’s youth when he used to crack Brazil nuts with his teeth.
The pain of a lifetime of poor dental health – he suffered from abscesses which would have been the source of continual illnesses and foul breath – which was only made worse by ill fitting dentures hanging onto the one tooth he had left in his head by the time he took office. Consequently he was taking laudanum to fight the pain – laudanum is a mixture of opium dissolved in alcohol.
In his later years he was reduced to a diet of soup. Half stoned, dribbling soup from badly fitting dentures – it’s not the image we expect is it?
So where are they now, these teeth of the first President? You might well ask! The University of Maryland Dental School had a set of the hippopotamus ivory ones and they loaned them to the Smithsonian who then lost them to a thief. So if you’re down the pub this weekend and someone makes you a really odd offer…it might be worth a second look.
“American, Eighteenth century and possibly one of a set…”
Copyright David Macadam 2010