In short, denture problems boil down to this: Do you want to smile, look and feel as attractive as possible – or not?
During the long and delicate history of artificial teeth, ancient people as well as people of today would rather not talk about: false teeth, dentures, toothaches or even “going to the dentist.” Even so, it is interesting to note that mankind has had to live with all kinds of “hidden” dental problems for thousands of years, so we might as well talk about, get out in the open and face the problems we all have, problems that are caused by our teeth.
We are all aware of how much more attractive and socially acceptable we are when we simply – smile. But, we also have to face the fact that our beautiful smiles are not “free.” Just as back in ancient days, those most welcome smiles can be achieved in only one way: by paying the cost in both mental anguish and hard earned money for regular appointments to see the dentist. It has always been that way for thousands of years.
Artificial teeth have been discovered in the graves of people who lived in ancient Etruria, The skeleton of Swedish King Gustavus Vasa, who died in 1560, had artificial teeth (dentures) in his well-preserved skull. Out of thirty-two skulls that were dug up from the Bonze age there were seven skulls that still contained sets of artificial teeth. About two thousand years ago a Roman doctor wrote in his medical book that men should wash their mouths on rising to prevent tooth decay. According to the writings of Thomas Berdmore, the dentist of King George III, tooth tartar build-up, as much as one-half inch thick, was, at that time, a major cause of tooth decay.
Many people in medieval times were troubled with constant toothaches. In fact, the ancient Greeks were said to be the first to have used a mouthwash. They made it of castoreum and pepper. It is believed the Greeks were the first to make pliers for pulling teeth. Aristotle who lived from 384 to 322 B.C. wrote that tooth extraction could be started with pliers but should be cautiously finished by hand. Three hundred years later, Celsus agreed with him that the first step in tooth extraction was to detach the gum all around the bad tooth.
The Greeks and Phoenicians were the first to devise methods of using gold wire to bind loose teeth to nearby good teeth. Etruscans tombs, as early as 700 B.C. have revealed attempts to solder wide bands of gold over natural teeth to be held there with pins through the natural teeth. Later, the Romans, learned many dental procedures about how to make partial sets of teeth from the Etruscans, (then a part of the Roman Empire).
The Romans had great awareness and concern regarding dental importance, problems and care. In their Law of the Twelve Tables they had penalties for any form of violence causing damage to the teeth. Example: ‘Whoever shall cause the tooth of a free man to be knocked out shall pay a fine of three hundred as, that of a slave one hundred and fifty.’
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, a Persian physician, Rhazes (850-923) was the first to suggest filling cavities with alum and mastic. Later, Abulcasis (1050-1122) in Arabia advised the use of dental scrapers to remove tartar build up. In fact, he taught the local “tooth barbers” (now called dentists) ways to bind loose teeth to healthy teeth with gold wire. He suggested filling gaps left by tooth removal with bone substitutes that were then held in place with gold wire.
In 1654 Englishman Peter Lowe explained that artificial teeth were being made of ivory and whalebone and then fastened in place with wire. But, until the end of the 17th century there was little or no progress in methods of treating dental problems and the practice of wearing artificial teeth was very rare. In fact, when Queen Elizabeth lost her front teeth she would, prior to appearing in public, stuff her mouth with rolls of cloth (called lip padding) to puff out her cheeks and she held a fan in front of her face when smiling, laughing and talking. We are told the same kind of padding was used by George Washington 200 years later while he was having his portrait painted.
Even the best barber-surgeons, the “tooth-drawers” of that time considered their primary task to be that of cleaning with a variety of scrapers and then washing or rinsing with a solution of nitric acid to whiten the teeth. Much damage was done after repeated applications of these acid cleaners.
At about this time, the 1600s, there was also the practice of transplantation, which involved the removal of rotten teeth and then filling their sockets with sound teeth drawn from another person. Back then; poor people often sold their healthy teeth to barber-surgeons to buy food for their hungry families. By the end of the 17th century the barber-surgeons realized more money could be made when they specialized in making false teeth for the rich.
Artificial teeth were usually made of hippopotamus or walrus ivory. Often a single piece of ivory was carved and then fastened to existing teeth with thread made of metal or silk. Because of this method of fastening the teeth in the mouth, they were difficult to remove. So, they stayed in the mouth and became quite uncomfortable over time. Back then, lower dentures were carved in one piece and closely resembled modern lower dentures. Expensive upper false teeth made of: silver, mother of pearl, enameled copper, Egyptian pebble and Italian agate could be provided and then fastened to an ivory base.
As late as 1789 these false teeth were considered a new invention and were provided as an ornamental luxury for “show” because they were actually quite useless for eating.