George Washington’s dentures were something he could not tell a lie about. Not least because it was hard to speak with them. According to the Mental Floss website, Washington’s false teeth were pretty useless when it came to talking and eating.
The reasons why the man who beat the British in the War of Independence (1775-82) and went on to become the first president of the new United States, serving from 1789 to 1797, needed false teeth are not clear. It is known that he started losing his own teeth while still young, possibly as a result of a poor diet, genetic issues or dental disease. When he became president at the age of 57, he only had one original tooth still in situ.
The solution was false teeth, and, over the years, Washington had several sets made. The only complete set remaining can be seen at the Mount Vernon Estate, once Washington’s home, where the museum on the site shows a video describing his dental issues.
The false teeth that were available in the late 18th century were primitive by modern standards. In general, they weren’t an exact fit, and Washington suffered pain from his and didn’t find it easy to eat or talk while wearing them. The materials used could be hazardous, and the construction left a lot to be desired.
The bottom teeth from Washington’s final set of dentures are now held at the New York Academy of Medicine. They were made by his dentist, John Greenwood, after the then- president finally lost his last surviving tooth.
The 18th century appears to have been something of a turning point in dental science, according to Jane Austen’s World, with Pierre Fauchard, the French physician known as the father of dentistry, breaking new ground with his book The Surgeon Dentist, a Treatise on Teeth, published in 1723. It was the first publication to suggest methods for treating and caring for teeth. He also introduced dental fillings.
Some years later, in 1760, John Baker, thought to be the first medically trained dentist, left England for America. A few years later, Paul Revere also advertised his dental services in Boston.
In 1790, Joseph Flagg made the first dental chair, and, in the same year, Greenwood himself invented the first dental foot pedal, using the pedal mechanism from a spinning wheel.
Arguably, these pioneering advances were not reflected in the quality of false teeth on offer. As well as being ill-fitting and painful, the materials used in making them were definitely not for the faint-hearted.
In the first place, the frame that fitted the teeth to the jaw was lead, now recognized as highly toxic.
The upper teeth would originally have belonged to donkeys or horses, and the bottom set was taken from cows and people. The whole contraption was spring-loaded, meaning the natural position for the teeth was open.
Keeping his mouth shut required physical effort on Washington’s part. Added to this were the pain they caused and the distortion of his face, pushing his lips out.
The Mount Vernon website maintains that, after the Cherry Tree legend, the biggest myth is about George Washington’s wooden dentures. The website dismisses this, citing most of the materials listed already, and points out that wood was not commonly used by dentists.
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So, if Washington did cut down the cherry tree, it would seem he was not looking for wood for a set of dentures.