Nearly every young person I know has a nearly perfect set of teeth.
It wasn’t like that among youngsters until a few decades ago. Now every high school and middle school student has the opportunity to wear braces if they are required for teeth straightening or for obtaining a pleasing appearance.
I also think that youngsters today take better care of their teeth than did teenagers in the 1950s and 60s.
The 70s brought on new dental techniques that were available to youngsters even in small towns and remote rural areas. It was a remarkable improvement in dentistry and teeth care, not to mention the expensive bridgework that was available for those who could afford it.
That’s all well and good, I suppose.
But I’ve often wondered how people in past centuries cared for their teeth. How did they keep their teeth clean and white?
What kinds of problems did the ancients have that we hardly have to worry about today? Was tooth extraction painful? Who performed the procedure and at what price?
Well, according to Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things and a variety of Internet sources listed under early dental practices, some interesting facts have come to light concerning the ancient practice of dentistry.
For instance, the first toothbrush used by ancients was the “chew stick,” a pencil-size twig with one end frayed to a soft, fibrous condition.
Chew sticks were initially rubbed against the teeth with no additional abrasive such as toothpaste, and they have been found in Egyptian tombs dating to 3000 B.C.
As a matter of fact, chew sticks are still used in some parts of the world.
Nylon bristle toothbrushes didn’t come into use in the United States until 1938. Nylon was tough, stiff, resilient, and resistant to deformation, and it was also impervious to moisture, so it dried thoroughly, discouraging bacterial growth.
As far as toothpaste goes, the first mention of its use in recorded history came about in Egypt some 2000 years ago. Highly abrasive and puckering pungent, it was made from powdered pumice stone and strong wine vinegar and brushed on with a chew stick.
By modern standards, it was considerably more palatable than early Roman toothpaste, made from human urine—which in liquid form served also as mouthwash.
First-century Roman physicians maintained that brushing with urine whitened teeth and fixed them more firmly in the sockets. Upper-class Roman women paid dearly for Portuguese urine, the most highly prized, since it was alleged to be the strongest on the continent.
Dental historians believe that may have been true, but only because the liquid came by land all the way from Portugal. Urine, as an active component in toothpastes and mouthwashes, continued to be used into the 18thcentury.
What the early dentists were unwittingly making use of was the urine’s cleansing ammonia molecules, which would later be used in modern dental pastes.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, dental skills and hygiene rapidly deteriorated in Europe. For 500 years, family members treated their dental aches and pains with homemade poultices and makeshift extractions.
The writings of the Persian physician Rhazes in the tenth century mark a reawakening of dental hygiene, as well as a breakthrough in filling cavities. He used a glue-like paste and resin-coated adhesives for holding the fillings in place.
Then, in the fourteenth century, attitudes about dental sanitation changed in Europe and the oral hygiene baton was passed on to the barber-surgeons—who banded together and set up guilds and became the main extractors of teeth.
In fact, the rough-and-ready surgery performed by barber-surgeons gave rise to the once-common sight of the red-and-white-striped barber’s pole.
It came about this way: The teeth-extracting surgeons also cut hair, trimmed beards, and practiced the alleged panacea of bloodletting.
During the bloodletting, it was customary for the patient to squeeze a pole tightly in one hand, so that the veins would swell and the blood would gush freely.
The pole was painted red to minimize bloodstains, and when not in use, it hung outside the shop as advertisement, wrapped round with white gauze used to bandage blood let arms.
The red-and-white pole eventually was adopted as the official trademark of barber-surgeon guilds.
But when surgeons and barbers split, the barbers got the pole.
And now you know.
Top o’ the morning