Dentistry as we know it is a fairly new profession. The first real, qualified, medical experts came up just at the end of the 19th century. This however in no way means that before that people did not have dental problems. In fact, for thousands of years humans have tried all sorts of remedies to help them with their bad teeth, but one practice proved much more persistent than all others – using the teeth of the deceased as a replacement.
Some of the oldest examples of false teeth go all the way back to ancient times. The Mayans used to make prosthetics out of carved stones, bones or shells, while the Egyptians and Etruscans made implants by connecting human or animal teeth with pieces of gold wire. This practice endured all the way to Renaissance Italy, although instead of pure gold, the Latins mixed it with silver and copper. For the most part such dentures were very rare, as the materials involved were expansive and finding human teeth was troublesome. Mouth problems were also not that common, as the food, unlike today, contained very little sugar or chemicals.
This however changed during the 18th century. The sugar trade surpassed wheat to become the largest in Europe and, especially in Great Britain, it was enormously popular among the wealthy. Suddenly there were “dentists” everywhere – ivory traders, jewelers, chemists, wigmakers and blacksmiths all offered their services. At first, they carved whole dentures out of ivory and attached the top and bottom half with wire. Such contraptions were very difficult and uncomfortable to wear, and the ivory would eventually start to rot, giving off a foul smell. So the would-be dentist turned to the tried old technique and started acquiring human teeth. They offered good sums for anybody willing to part with theirs, however the volunteers were scarce. As the demand grew, many resulted to grave robbing. The old teeth would then be boiled, their roots cut off and affixed onto ivory bases. The height of this practice came in 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo. Thousands of French, English and Prussian bodies with perfectly good teeth laid across the battlefield and it didn’t take long for the surviving soldiers and locals to start gathering them. The business was so profitable, that scavengers were travelling all the way from Britain. The gathered quantities were so large, they were shipped back off in barrels. Similar stories followed the Crimean War and the American Civil War. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that artificial prosthetics, made out of porcelain and rubber, finally took their place as the norm among dentures.
The beginning of the 19th century saw the introduction of the first porcelain teeth. They were designed by a jeweler, named Claudius Ash, who used to be a battlefield surgeon at Waterloo. His first attempts were way too white and brittle, until the 1830s when he presented his “tube teeth”, which closely resembled real ones. The second important invention, which made artificial dentures possible was made in America by none other than Charles and Nelson Goodyear. They developed the process of vulcanization, making natural India rubber much harder. This made the synthetic gums not only more durable, but also gave them a realistic pinkish color.