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Though many still believe that George Washington had wooden teeth, America’s first president actually wore dentures made of ivory, animal bones, and even human teeth that may have belonged to enslaved people.
There are a couple of things that most Americans know about George Washington: he fought in the Revolutionary War, he was the first president of the United States, and he had bad teeth. But the story behind George Washington’s teeth is much darker than most realize.
Plagued with dental problems all his life, Washington had his first tooth pulled when he was just 24. But though the myth that George Washington had wooden teeth lingered on through the ages, he actually turned to a much more shocking source for his dentures.
While America’s first president sometimes used animal bones as substitute teeth, Washington also often used human teeth. At the time, poor people sometimes sold their teeth as a way to make money. And there’s evidence that Washington even purchased teeth from his slaves.
This is the surprising story of George Washington’s teeth.
How George Washington’s Teeth Caused Him A Lifetime Of Misery
Born on Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington built a reputation as a brave general, a noble politician, and the “father” of the United States of America. But he was also plagued by dental problems for most of his life.
According to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington, even as a young man, tried hard to take care of his teeth. He bought toothbrushes, tinctures of myrrh, and tooth powders and pastes. But all his efforts were in vain.
Perhaps suffering from gum disease — historians aren’t sure — Washington had his first tooth pulled when he was 24 years old in 1756. Then a young militia officer, Washington recorded in his diary that he’d given a “Doctr Watson” five shillings to remove one of his teeth.
From there, George Washington’s teeth got even worse. Not only did he suffer from painful toothaches, but his teeth looked visibly diseased to others.
“His mouth is large and generally firmly closed,” wrote his camp aide, Captain George Mercer, in 1760, “but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.”
And as Washington’s military and political star rose, his teeth continued to deteriorate. In the 1770s and 1780s, he started wearing partial dentures made of ivory that dentists wired to his existing teeth. Sometimes, Washington even tried using his old teeth in his dentures.
“In a drawer in the Locker of the Desk which stands in my Study you will find two small (fore) teeth; which I beg of you to wrap up carefully, and send inclosed [sic] in your next Letter to me,” he wrote to his cousin, Lund, who was overseeing his Mount Vernon estate during the Revolutionary War. “I am positive I left them there, or in the secret drawer in the locker of the same desk.”
But Washington continued to lose teeth. By the time he was sworn in as the first president of the United States in 1789, Washington had just one tooth left. When that tooth fell out in 1796, he gave it to his dentist, Dr. John Greenwood. (Greenwood, delighted, wore it on his watch chain.)
Washington hated his dentures, which were painful and made an awkward hissing noise, according to The New York Times. Plus, they made his lips awkwardly stick out.
“Not knowing whether you mean to make a new set, or to repair the old, I must again caution you against adding anything that will widen the bars on the sides,” Washington wrote to Greenwood in 1797. “They are already too wide, and too projecting for the parts they rest upon; which causes both upper, & under lip to bulge out, as if swelled.”
Today, it’s common knowledge that George Washington had bad teeth. But few people know what Washington’s dentures were actually made of.
Did George Washington Have Wooden Teeth?
Since his death in 1799, the myth about George Washington’s wooden teeth has pervaded. But the truth is more complicated — and much darker.
According to Ron Chernow, the historian who wrote Washington: A Life, the rumour of George Washington’s wooden teeth probably arose because “gradual staining of hairline fractures in the ivory… made it resemble a wood grain.”
Indeed, Washington’s teeth were frequently stained because he liked drinking port wine. His dentist, Greenwood, even scolded him over the habit in 1798, writing: “the sett [of dentures] you sent me from Philadelphia… was very black… Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish.”
So, what were George Washington’s teeth made from? According to Mount Vernon, they were a combination of different alloys, ivory from walruses and hippopotamuses, cow and horse teeth, and human teeth.
At least two pairs of Washington’s dentures, made between 1789 and 1795, contained human teeth. But it’s impossible to know whose teeth they were. Dentists of Washington’s age regularly collected teeth for their clients so that they could find the right size and color. To fill this need, poor people — white, Black, enslaved, and free — sold their teeth.
However, there are records that suggest that Washington purchased teeth from the enslaved people who worked on his Mount Vernon plantation. In 1784 his cousin, Lund, recorded the purchase of nine teeth for 122 shillings from unnamed “Negroes” for a dentist named Jean Pierre Le Mayeur.
Mount Vernon reports that it’s likely that Mayeur bought the teeth to furnish his collection. That said, it is possible that the teeth were used for Washington’s later dentures. It’s also possible that teeth taken from Washington’s slaves were not recorded in any official ledger.
Likewise, it’s impossible to know if the enslaved workers opted to sell their teeth or if they were coerced by Lund or George Washington. Mount Vernon notes that because the threat of physical violence was omnipresent, enslaved people couldn’t have refused the request.
The Legacy Of George Washington’s Teeth
Today, George Washington’s teeth are often discussed as one of the first president’s insecurities. Historian Michael Beschloss wrote in The New York Times that Washington’s dentures made him deeply self-conscious and that the president saw them as a “mortifying sign of weakness.”
But modern eyes see the story of George Washington’s teeth as more than that. Today, Washington’s teeth are intertwined with his legacy as an enslaver.
Did George Washington use enslaved people’s teeth in his dentures? It’s unclear, but Washington did — like other affluent men of his day — fill his dentures with human teeth. And he did purchase teeth from Black people who were forced to work on his Mount Vernon plantation.
What’s more, historians don’t have all of George Washington’s dentures. Mount Vernon writes that it’s unknown how many dentures the president had during his lifetime and that they don’t know where all his dentures ended up. So how many were filled with human teeth?
As such, the story of George Washington’s teeth is bigger than his dental problems, his affinity for wine, or the struggles he had with his self-image. It also offers a gruesome anecdote about the practice of teeth selling and buying and the dire circumstances faced by many American slaves.
CR: ATI (Backlink)