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Washington’s Wooden Dentures

Did you know that George Washington did not, in fact, have wooden teeth? It’s hard to believe, seeing as it’s one of those things you heard growing up. It’s like the famous cherry tree story: Little George “could not tell a lie” about chopping down a cherry tree on his family’s property, so he fessed up to his parents. What an upstanding role model: Too bad that story is a big lie as well! Myths like this are quite common around important historical figures. The image of this awesome Revolutionary War hero dealing with wooden dentures makes him seem more human, much like the cherry tree story makes him seem better than the common man, more honest and “presidential.”

In the days before gold and ceramic crowns were common, wooden dentures were a thing. Japan, in particular, made exquisite wooden dentures in the 18th century. Even farther back than that, the Etruscans designed ivory and bone bridges in the 7th century B.C. So the idea of a man like Washington having wooden teeth isn’t that far-fetched. Rich merchants and samurai in Japan had them in the 18th century, so why not our first president?

The truth is that Washington had some pretty awful dental issues in his life, beginning in his early 20s. He lost all of his teeth by the time he was 55, despite daily brushing. A nasty smallpox infection worked against him, as well as some of the gross techniques used at the time to care for teeth, including using burned bread and tobacco as part of a “tooth powder.” Needless to say, these ingredients didn’t help strengthen Washington’s tooth enamel.

When he finally did get dentures, they were considered unsightly by his peers and awfully painful to Washington. They were made with hippo ivory, human teeth, and metal fasteners, but not even a splinter of wood. When Washington took the oath of office in 1789, he stepped up his game a little bit, wearing a set of dentures made with gold, brass, and ivory by a man considered to be the “father of modern dentistry,” Dr. John Greenwood.

Washington had a love-hate relationship with his dentures. One scholar described them as a “mortifying sign of weakness” to him. He needed them for practical and aesthetic reasons, but they caused him a great deal of pain. He took laudanum to cope. He also had to deal with the way the dentures made his face bulge and look out-of-sorts. The most famous portrait of Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, shows the “puffy-faced” commander-in-chief looking none too pleased at his dental predicament.

If you want to see Washington’s dentures yourself, head to the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore. Researchers there have used laser technology to examine the dentures and hopefully learn more about the nature of the man. It’s fascinating to learn that the image of Washington as “stiff” stemmed from his dental pain. Scholars describe the “real” Washington as a great dancer and athlete, a true man of adventure. He just had to deal with primitive dentures that made him scowl.

So why did people think the dentures were wooden? One explanation is Washington’s love of dark wine. The wine stained the ivory and made it look like wood grain. This bit of misinformation trickled down through the years and was taught at schools all across America. Some additions to the myth include one about Washington carving the teeth himself. What an American hero!

Want to know more? These resources will help you learn more about the man, the myth, and the dentures:

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