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What’s the Story?How did the Victorians Clean Their Teeth?

  Last week’s big news was that flossing does very little to help our teeth and gums. It got me wondering how people managed their oral hygiene in the  past – did they bother at all? Well, it seems they did ...


Last week’s big news was that flossing does very little to help our teeth and gums. It got me wondering how people managed their oral hygiene in the  past – did they bother at all?

Vctorian woman's toilette

Well, it seems they did – for all the same reasons we do – everything from not wanting to wear dentures like this:

George-Washington-teeth-hippo-ivory (1)

(actually, these belonged to George Washington (1732 1799) and were made from hippo ivory)  – to bad breath.


Victoria was not amused by that. Basically, the Victorians used brushes and toothpaste,  just like we do, making improvements to the techniques of the previous century.


Toothpastes: Many people made their own concoction for cleaning teeth even when it was possible to buy ready-made products. In her book, How to be a Victorian Ruth Goodman states that soot, chalk, coral, alum, powdered cuttlefish, myrrh, and camphor were commonly used to clean teeth.  After trying the different recipes, (Yes, she actually tried them.) Ms.Goodman said she preferred tooth powders made with soot over the other ingredients. If DIY was not your thing a rising number of proprietary powders were available through the 19th century with squeezy tubes appearing in 1880. Doctor Washington Sheffield manufactured toothpaste in a collapsible tube, Dr. Sheffield’s Creme Dentifrice. He had the idea after his son travelled to Paris and saw painters using paint from tubes. In 1896, Colgate & Company of York stole this idea for their dental cream and they are still selling their products to us today. Of course they no longer use lead to make their tubes – thank goodness.


Toothbrushes: In 1780 English rag-maker William Addis was jailed for inciting a riot. To beat boredom, he took to creating toothbrushes by creating a handle out of calf-bone and filling holes in drilled at the top in with boar hair held together by wire.


Upon his release, he started selling his toothbrushes commercially. His children expanded his operations and thus we had the first mass-produced toothbrush.


Nothing much has changed really – look at this advert  – it sounds very familiar to me. We are still being promised a sparkly white smile, fresh breath and fewer trips to the dentist.

For the TEETH. Patronized and used by his Royal Highness the Duke of Kent. TROTTER’s ORIENTAL DENTIFRICE, or ASIATIC TOOTH POWDER, had been for 20 years acknowledged by the most respectable Medical authorities, used by many, and recommended. The Powder cleanses and beautifies the teeth, sweetens the breath, posses no acid that can erode the enamel, and puts a beautiful polish on the teeth. From its astringency, it strengthens the gums, eradicates the scurvy (which often proves the destruction of a whole set of teeth), preserves sound teeth from decay, secures decayed teeth from becoming worse, fastens those which are loose, and proves the happy means of preventing their being drawn. 


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