The Gruesome History of False Teeth

Did you know that dentures were originally made with real human teeth? And that the teeth came from dead people? Sometimes the teeth came from dead soldiers on the battlefield, which was the fate of the fallen soldiers during the 1815 Battle of Waterloo between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Seventh Coalition. There were 65,000 casualties in this battle including POWs and MIAs, and the deaths totaled somewhere in the range of 30,000.

The average adult mouth has 32 teeth, and if you multiply that by the number of dead soldiers, you end up 40K shy of one million teeth. That’s a lot of teeth, and somebody went out on that battlefield to pull as many teeth as they could yank out. Can you even imagine?

The teeth “collected” at the Battle of Waterloo were so plentiful that they “glutted the market,” according to Dental Items of Interest. London dentists used hog’s-heads to carry off the dead soldiers’ teeth, as reported in Fraser’s Magazine.

Government-sanctioned merchants known as “sutlers” follow armies into war, setting up portable stores to sell merchandise to soldiers such as coffee, sugar, and tobacco. Sometimes their offerings included Old West saloon-style entertainment, which spawned laws to forbid it. Sometimes unofficial sutlers malingered to the detriment of the troops.

Our Boys told us that sutlers and soldiers weren’t always on the best of terms. Soldiers who didn’t steal from sutlers and peddlers were ridiculed. Sutlers charged exorbitant prices, which gave soldiers an excuse to steal. These thefts, in turn, were used to justify charging exorbitant prices, creating a Catch-22.

Four Years in the Saddle expanded on this price-gouging. “Sutlers usually were regular sharks” giving credit to soldiers via tickets or tokens, and then charging up items for “one hundred percent profit.” In retaliation, the soldiers devised a method to steal bottles of wine.

Dental Items of Interest reported that after the sutlers became tooth collectors, they made more money selling human teeth than they did robbing the dead bodies of the soldiers. In England, dentists were regular customers of the “tooth man” who carried human teeth for sale.

The Eclectic Magazine took us into the invasion of the body snatchers, where graveyards were pillaged for body parts and teeth, the latter being sold to dentists. One man entered a vault pretending to look for a burial place for his wife, but he was really just casing the joint. Later he went back and “pocketed the front teeth of the whole of the buried congregation.” During the Peninsular War, a licensed sutler “drew the teeth of those who had fallen in battle, and plundered their persons.” He made so much money robbing the dead soldiers that he built a hotel, but his nefarious acts were discovered and his hotel was shunned.

Teeth were so valuable that poor people had their teeth pulled out, because these “live teeth” were much more valuable than dead teeth. Taking inflation into account, pulling out and selling a living tooth might have netted you about $70 in today’s prices. Other sources of human teeth included dissecting rooms, hospitals, mummies, tombs, and graves.

The Dictionary of Dental Science revealed that in a pinch, cow’s teeth were used, though they tended to be whiter and more fragile than human teeth, lasting four years at the most. Sheep’s teeth were used to make human dentures, as well. You could also have new teeth carved out of elephant ivory or hippopotamus tusks. Elephant ivory quickly became discolored and decayed, and gave the mouth a foul odor. Hippopotamus tusks fared a little better, though they soon turned yellow, and then dark blue, before an offensive odor took hold that no amount of cleaning would correct.

Walrus, rhinoceros, and narwhal tusks were also used, and if you were really hard up, you could get artificial teeth made of wood.

Dental Cosmos transported us back to the ancient Etruscans of the Italian peninsula, whose dentures were found in tombs dating back to around 700 B.C. Some sported a carved ox tooth banded to natural teeth with gold bands or wires.

Eventually the tooth-makers began to experiment with various minerals, and discovered that porcelain was more durable and natural-looking. Once porcelain teeth replaced human teeth for making dentures, tooth-maker Samuel Stockton of Philadelphia took his inventory of human teeth, enough to fill five large trunks, and graveled his garden walks with them. This tidbit appeared in Transactions of the International Medical Congress.

Perhaps if our ancestors had taken better care of their natural teeth, and had access to professional dental care for regular cleanings, they wouldn’t have needed false teeth taken from a cow or hippopotamus. If they’d had that cavity filled before it turned into an abcessed tooth, they wouldn’t have needed a partial denture made with a dead man’s teeth. Visit the dentist regularly and keep your natural teeth.

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If you enjoy reading about the gruesome uses of dead bodies, Ancient Aliens and the Age of Giants has a chapter entitled “Where Are the Bones?” which exposes the shocking fate of human remains, such as bones being ground into flour and baked into bread, or mummy medicine. Explore evidence that a race of giants predated modern humans on Earth and lived alongside us for awhile, though not in harmony. They terrorized us, killed our women, and threw our men into pots of stew. Earth-born giants were our enemies, but extraterrestrial giants were our friends. Judge the evidence for yourself.

  • Ancient Aliens and the Age of Giants

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    Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Volume 5, February to July, 1832; James Fraser of London, author; Waugh and Innes, Edinburgh, and Grant & Co., Dublin, publishers; 1832.
    Our Boys, The Personal Experiences of a Soldier in the Army of the Potomac; A. F. Hill of the Eighth Pennsylvania Reserves, author; John E. Potter and Company of Philadelphia, publisher; 1866.
    Four Years in the Saddle, History of the First Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, War of the Rebellion — 1861-1865; W. L. Curry, compiler; Champlin Printing Co., printer; 1898.
    Dental Items of Interest, Volume 43, A Monthly Journal of Dental Science, Art and Literature; R. Ottolengui, M.S.D., D.D.S., editor; Dental Items Publishing, publisher; 1921.
    The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, New Series, Volume 14, July to December 1871; W. H. Bidwell, editor; E. R. Pelton of New York, publisher; 1871.
    A Dictionary of Dental Science, Fifth Edition; Chapin A. Harris, M.D., D.D.S., author; Ferdinand J.S. Gorgas, M.D., D.D.S., author; P. Blakiston Son & Co. of Philadelphia, publisher; 1891.
    The Dental Cosmos, A Monthly Record of Dental Science, Volume 59; Edward C. Kirk, D.D.S., editor; The S. S. White Dental Manufacturing Co. of Philadelphia, publisher; 1917.
    Transactions of the International Medical Congress, Ninth Session, Volume 5; John B. Hamilton, M.D., editor; The Executive Committee of Washington, D.C., publisher; 1887.

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