J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

George Washington's Teeth, Close Up

In 1798, George Washington ordered what was probably his last set of false teeth. Here they are, courtesy of the American Dental Association.

The dentist who supplied these choppers was John Greenwood, who has appeared on Boston 1775 as a ten-year-old boy waiting up nights for a visit with the ghost of his roommate Samuel Maverick, killed in the Boston Massacre; and as a fifteen-year-old soldier during the Battle of Bunker Hill. I love being able to trace people through their lives like that.

The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore has an online display on the correspondence between Greenwood and Washington from 1791 to 1799. Those pages also include an image of a different set of lower dentures.

Greenwood sent his client this professional advice in 28 Dec 1798:

I send you inclosed two setts of teeth, one fixed on the Old Barrs in part, and the sett you sent me from philadelphia which when I received was very black. Occasioned either by your soaking them in port wine, or by your drinking it. Port wine being sower, takes of all the polish and All Acids has a tendency to soften every kind of teeth and bone. Acid is used in coloring every kind of Ivory. Therefore it is very pernicious to the teeth.
Greenwood’s father Isaac was an ivory craftsman, so he knew what he was talking about.
I advise you to Either take them out after dinner and put them in clean water and put in another sett, or clean them with a brush and some chalk scraped fine, it will Absorbe the Acids which collects from the mouth and preserve them longer.

I have found another and better way of using the Sealing wax, when a hole is eaten in the teeth by acid, etc.—first observe, then dry the teeth, then take a piece of Wax and cut into as small pieces as you think will fill up the hole. Then, take a large nail or any other piece of Iron and heat it hot into the fire, Then put your piece of wax into the hole and melt it by means of introducing the point of the nail to it. I have tried it, and found it to Consoladate, and do better than the other way and if done proper it will resist the saliva. It will be handyer for you to take hold of the Nail with small plyers, than with a tongs thus, the wax must be very small not bigger than this [dot].

If your teeth grows black, take some chalk and a Pine or Cedar stick, it will rub of[f]. If you whant your teeth more yellower soake them in Broath or pot liquor, but not in tea or acid. Porter is a good thing to coulor them and will not hurt but preserve them but it must not be in the least pricked.

You will find I have Altered the upper teeth you sent me from philadelphia leaveing the enamel on the teeth dont preserve them any longer than if it was of, it only holds the color better, but to preserve them they must be very often Changed and cleaned for whatever attacks them, must be repelled, as often or it will gain ground and destroy the works.

the two setts I repaired is done on a different plan than when they are done when made entirely new, for the teeth are screwed on the barrs, instead of haveing the barrs cast red hot on them, which is the reason I believe the[y] destroy or dissolve so soone near to the barrs. Sir, after hopeing you will not be Obliged to be troubled very sune in the same way, I subscribe myself,

Your very humble servant,
John Greenwood

The additional charge is fiveteen dollars

P.S. I expect next Spring to move my family into Connecticut State. If I do, I will rite, and let you know, whether I give up my present business or not. I will as long as I live, do anything in this way for you or in any other way in my power—if you require it.
Washington wrote back, “I shall always prefer your services to those of any other in the line of your present profession.”


Anonymous said...

Oh, my gosh, that set of teeth is frightening.

J. L. Bell said...

One reason those choppers might look so strange, I realized, is that they're all incisors. There are no canine teeth or other different types. So they don't look human; they look piano.

It's possible that the big, broad, toothy smile that we like today was seen as gauche then. Washington's contemporaries may not have expected to see much of his teeth, in that case, and his dentures might not have had to look natural.

Another scary detail are those springs at the sides, apparently poised to pinch the inside of the cheeks.

Singhappy2 said...

my daughter and I think this is amazing. Thanks for the pictures - and a great history lesson. Truly amazing. And truly grateful for good dentist's today!