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May 5, 2020

Many of the Dentures in the 18th and 19th Centuries Were Made From the Teeth of Dead Soldiers at Waterloo

Although our modern technology allows for comfort and easy-to-use dentures, this was not always the case. Original dentures had difficulties with fit, attachment, comfort, and durability. As dentists tried to improve false teeth, they tried many different materials and techniques.

Ivory was one of the earliest materials used to replace lost teeth. Ivory came from animals like the hippopotamus, walrus, or elephant. These teeth tended to decay and rarely looked natural, but got the job done. Ivory was still used for the base of dentures, even after quality human teeth became more available near the end of the 18th century.

The best dentures were made from human teeth. The source of these teeth ranged from robbed graves, peasants looking to make a quick buck, and even dentists’ collections. Understandably, these sources provided poor quality teeth. Their poor quality meant that dentures were mostly cosmetic and needed to be removed for eating.

The death of 50,000 men at the battle of Waterloo in 1815 soon diminished the lack of quality human teeth. Soldiers marching at Waterloo were young and healthy, so their teeth were ideal for denture making. “Waterloo teeth” became the fashion in Britain and were often worn as a trophy despite the impossibility of knowing their direct origin.

This practice of using human teeth for dentures continued on into the late 1860s. These so-called “Waterloo teeth” – a moniker which quickly became applicable to any set of teeth pilfered from the mouth of a dead soldier and continued in use throughout the Crimean and American Civil Wars – were vastly preferable to those more commonly used in the eighteenth century. These pre-war teeth were frequently acquired from executed criminals, exhumed bodies, dentists’ patients and even animals and were consequently often rotten, worn down or loaded with syphilis. The prospect of an overabundance of young, healthy teeth to be readily pillaged from the battlefield must have been a dentist’s dream.

This fashion for “genuine” dentures, popular though it was, was nonetheless dogged by unappealing “graverobber” connotations and it was consequently during the mid-nineteenth century that more sustainable and palatable styles of false teeth came to the fore. Porcelain teeth, which had actually been in use as far back as the 1770s but had struggled with a tendency to chip, underwent a great transformation thanks to Claudius Ash, a silver and goldsmith who brought his expertise to dentures in the 1820s and 30s when he started manufacturing porcelain teeth mounted on gold plates, with gold springs and wire to hold them in place and make them easier to talk and eat with.

Ash & Sons, which became a successful company, went on to devise dental plates made of vulcanite and silver, as well as sickle-shaped metal insets to stabilize single false teeth, aluminum and gold mesh dental strengtheners and silicate cement for fillings, among much else. It was from here that the manufacturing of false teeth really took off, with dentists’ advertisements from the British Library Evanion Collection showcasing the sudden diversity of materials and plates available – from platinum to 18 carat gold. That said, the use of the genuine article in the manufacturing of Victorian dentures did not let up throughout much of the late nineteenth century and it was not until the early twentieth century that one could be certain not to find anyone smiling at you with a set of dead men’s teeth.

(via The British Library Board)


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