The scary truth of how dentists made dentures in the 19th century

by Shirley Williams
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Today dentistry is a respected field of medicine. Although if someone had a heart attack on an airplane you still wouldn’t want a dentist offering their services when the flight attendant asked: “Is there a doctor on the plane?”. In all other cases though there work is incredibly impressive. Dentists have to study almost as long as doctors and the dexterity required is a specialized vocation. It wasn’t always this way. In the 19th century being a dentist was a side gig for many professions and some of their methods were more than worrying.

In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for blacksmiths, wigmakers, and jewelers all to offer dental services. The industry was not seen as real medical science and anyone could knock on their jeweler’s door to have some dentures tightened if they needed it. Yet this was not the most worrying thing about dental practices back then. 

Today dentures are made from a combination of metal and plastic. The bottom part is usually metal and covered in plastic while the teeth themselves are a form of plastic as well with some acrylic resin used too. In the 19th century, there were no such dentures available. The most common dentures were made from porcelain or ivory (although George Washington famously had a wooden set in the century before). However, the most sought after dentures were made from real teeth!

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Today historians refer to the dentures at that time as waterloo teeth because many were taken from dead soldiers on the battlefield. Soldiers that survived would walk up and down a battlefield pulling teeth from deceased soldiers. They would then sell them on to dentists. As the most famous battle at the time was the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, this has become the common name they are now referred to by. However, there is no evidence that anyone called them Waterloo teeth at the time. In fact, there is very little mention of where the teeth came from at all. 

This may actually suggest that dentists were not telling the truth about where they were getting their teeth and in many cases didn’t know themselves. Many dentists took the approach of ignorance is true bliss. If they didn’t know the crimes that were being committed to gather the teeth they needed then all was well. In fact, when there weren’t enough dead bodies lying on battlefields some criminals would steal teeth from graves and sell them on to dentists as well. During the 19th century, dentures were really growing in popularity among the wealthy. They were eating large amounts of sugar and were not so great at brushing their teeth. When dentures were really in high demand, poor people would sell off their teeth so that the wealthy could have dentures. These live extractions of healthy (relatively healthy) teeth would have been extremely painful as there was no anesthetic back then, except maybe a little alcohol, if they were lucky.

Dentists would ask no questions, boil the teeth, separate the root and turn them into perfect dentures. It appears customers were happy to ask no questions either. The real teeth were supposedly much more comfortable than the porcelain and ivory alternatives. They were better at biting food and overall much more like the real thing (for obvious reasons).

While many people have a fear of dentists today, there is absolutely no reason to. They are there like any other professional to provide a service for your benefit. However, if you do ever need to get dentures, we highly recommend that you ask where they came from. Otherwise, you might end up with a pair of Waterloo Dentures.

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