I’ll bet the hardest thing about prize fightin’ is pickin’ up yer teeth with a boxin’ glove on.


False Teeth

ALAN WATTS (1913-75)

Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.

The word for not having any teeth is edentulous.


In the 19th century, if you couldn't afford dentures, you could always get a pair of masticators. These were pairs of metal jaws, like nutcrackers, in which you would pre-crush a mouthful of food before putting it in your mouth.

Dentures as a Dowry

In areas with high poverty, many people used to have all their upper or lower teeth taken out in one go and replaced with dentures. The procedure was sometimes presented to a young man as a 21st birthday present or as a dowry for a young woman before her wedding – the idea being that it would save money on dentistry in the future. 

Early dentures were made of wood, carved bone or ivory. They had no enamel, so they decayed quickly in the mouth and soon stank. Human teeth would have been an improvement but supplies were very low as it wasn’t legal to use teeth ‘acquired’ from graves. Poor people even sold their teeth to the rich: as soon as a rich person had a decayed tooth removed, a healthy tooth from a poor donor’s mouth would be pushed into the socket.

The one good source of teeth was the thousands of young men being killed on Europe’s battlefields. Their teeth were taken by scavengers and shipped back to England by the barrel. They were seen as being patriotic – a mouthful of heroes’ teeth (even though it wasn’t always clear which side your new teeth had been fighting for).

Before upper sets of false teeth stuck to the roof of the mouth by suction, there was no easy way to keep them in place. The first sets which contained both upper and lower teeth had whalebone springs to push the two rows of teeth apart constantly. Some patients in Paris even had their gums pierced to allow a row of teeth to be suspended from two hooks.

DOROTHY PARKER (1893-1967)

The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.

Unusual Dentists

One of the first recorded dentists was an Ancient Egyptian called Hesi-Re, who is mentioned in a burial chamber from 2600 bc. He is described as 'the greatest of those who deal with teeth, and of the physicians'. He was also the guardian of the diadem and the keeper of royal records. Other dentists had doubled-up jobs – there was one called Khuwy, who was also ‘Interpreter of the Secret Art of the Internal Organs’ and ‘Guardian of the Anus’. 

Martin Van Butchell was a dentist in 1770s London who rode around Hyde Park on a white pony which he sometimes painted purple. To protect himself he carried a large white bone which supposedly had been used in Tahiti as a war club. When his first wife died he had her embalmed, replaced her eyes with glass, and kept the body in his parlour, which did a lot for his trade. Astonishingly, he still managed to remarry. The body was moved to the Royal College of Surgeons until it was destroyed in an air raid in 1941.

George Washington's dentures were made from gold, ivory and lead, as well as human and animal teeth.

In the 19th century, dentures were often teeth taken from the mouths of soldiers killed in battle.