Keeping It Clean, Part Six: Gotta Brush Those Pearly Whites

It’s always interesting to read the descriptions of beautiful women from past centuries and see how they might compare to today’s beauties. One of the common attributes often noted is their teeth: having white, even teeth was a definite attribute of especial attractiveness (Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, was often cited as beautiful despite her bad teeth, which caused her to assume a close-mouth smile. However, Napoleon himself seems to have done a better job of taking care of his teeth–see his toothbrush at right!) Breath, too, was often cited, particularly when it was bad. So what did young women do to achieve these signs of beauty?

Dental science, like other medical science, was in its infancy in the 19th century. Even so, it had been understood since ancient times that keeping one’s mouth clean would help prevent tooth decay (though not why–the idea that tooth decay is caused by bacteria was not proposed until the 1890s). Two common methods for cleaning teeth were rubbing them with a damp rag dipped in salt and ashes, or using a cleaning stick, a twig (often of some aromatic wood) chewed at one end until it was fibery and brushlike, which would then be used to clean tooth surfaces (the other end was often sharpened to a toothpick-like point to remove matter from between teeth). Of course, not everyone bothered; the situation was exacerbated by the increasing availability and dropping cost of refined sugar in the 18th century…which is why white teeth and good breath were noteworthy.

The Chinese created the first bristled tooth-brush in the early 1600s using bamboo handles and pig bristles, and some of these made their way to Europe, where the design was modified to use softer horsehair. But the idea didn’t really take off until the 1780s, when an Englishman named William Addis, while serving a temporary jail term, created a toothbrush containing rows of bunches of pig bristles set in tiny holes drilled into the end of a bone handle—essentially the modern toothbrush (see above). After his release he began to sell his brushes, now made with horsehair, which caught on and became very popular. William died in 1808, leaving his thriving toothbrush business to his son (and by the way, the company is still in the toothbrush business 240 years later) By the 1840s the modern three-row brush had been invented, and tooth-brushing became widespread.

Toothpaste has a more recent history. Ancient peoples including the Egyptians, Greek, and Romans used various compounds to clean the teeth: ingredients included iris root, chalk, ground oyster shells, or pulverized charcoal. As mentioned above, a combination of salt and ashes was sometimes used as a sort of polish to rub on teeth.

The first commercially sold preparations used for cleaning the teeth were 19th century in origin. I have several advertising supplements from La Belle Assemblee containing ads for such products as “Chevalier Ruspini’s Dentrifice” (“most salutary during the winter season, the effects of cold and damp air on the Teeth and Gums being repelled and counteracted by its balsamic and astringent qualities.”) and “Trotter’s Oriental Dentrifice or Asiatic Tooth Powder” (“Patronized and used by Their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of Clarence and Kent, and Gentlemen in the Navy and Army, who have found the good effects in long voyages.”) It sounds as though toothbrushes were dipped in the powder, rather than the powder being made into a paste with added water; from what I’ve been able to find, actual toothpaste didn’t supplant tooth powders until after the first world war.




Keeping It Clean, Part Six: Gotta Brush Those Pearly Whites — 4 Comments

  1. I always loved the toss-away moment in Shakespeare in Love where Viola de Lesseps brushes her teeth (the chewed twig method) and spits into a cup held for her by her doting nurse.

  2. “Her eyes in certain light were violet, and all her teeth were even. That’s a rare, fair feature: even teeth. She smiled to excess, but she chewed with real distinction.” — Eleanor of Aquitaine describing her husband’s mistress Rosamund, The Lion in Winter

  3. Tooth powder was still in use in the 1950’s — my dad had it in his Navy toiletry kit. It may have been preferred for travel or on board ship as taking up less space or having a longer shelf life than toothpaste.