The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of 19th Century Dental Care
In some ways, reading advice from the early part of the 19th century sounds, but for the grammar, like something you might come across in a 2014 issue of Cosmopolitan, Allure, or, because it’s directed at men, Men’s Fitness.
We’d very much agree with their statements about what makes your teeth so important:
At all times inspiring loathing and disgust when rotten or soiled, teeth, when they are white, even, and firm, are a great beauty and blessing every one ought to feel conscious of. If a man but possess, indeed, this one solitary advantage in personal appearance, it is certainly a great advocate among the angels of this lower world, it being a truly considerable saving clause.
Certainly, we could use this to make a case for teeth whitening or clear braces as well as just good oral hygiene. But when it comes to their advice, not all of it is as sound as this assessment.
Some Good Advice
To be sure, not all of the dental care advice they give is good, but some of it is useful, especially for the time. For example, they note that “The durability of teeth depends upon the thickness of the enamel, which should never be rubbed too long with powder of any sort, as the constant repetition of it very sensibly wears it.” This is good advice for the nineteenth century. Before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the American Dental Association (ADA) analyzed and approved dentifrices, the primary component in all of them was various abrasives, sometimes including ground up china. That will wear your teeth out, for sure.
It’s also good to avoid, “the vegetable acids that are vended, and so much commended as tooth powders,” because their “influence is most pernicious.” Mild acid like you find in an apple can help clean teeth, but it’s likely that unregulated acid washes for your teeth could do some real damage.
Finally, they note, “The teeth, which consume more by night than by day, should be rinsed well with water and a soft brush previous to going to bed.” We couldn’t agree more. At night, saliva decreases and bacterial activity increases, resulting in accelerated tooth decay.
And the Bad
Unfortunately, the guide then gives its readers a very bum steer, “However nauseous and unpleasant it may be to the palate, I am convinced there is nothing that preserves the teeth so well as tobacco. The reason why you will never see an old or inveterate smoker with bad teeth.”
As a treatment for teeth, the author recommends “the ashes of tobacco, mixed with a little salt and fine charcoal as the best preservative for the teeth.”
Wow. It is in keeping with the general perception for centuries that tobacco had great medicinal qualities, but still it’s shocking to read, knowing as we do the dangers of tobacco smoking or chewing for your teeth and gums. From periodontal disease to impaired healing to cancer, the effects of tobacco on your mouth are a subject so voluminous that they should be put off for another day.
The Ugly Side of Beauty Advice
Although many things have changed since the time this advice appeared in the 1830 book The Whole Art of the Dress, but one thing hasn’t: you should always take beauty and health advice you read in a magazine, guidebook, or website with a grain of salt (and not salt mixed with tobacco ash and charcoal), because the author may not know what they’re talking about.
Instead, for good advice, talk to your doctor or dentist.