The Bizarre History of Dental Care

When you think of dental care, the first images that come to mind are probably of shiny tools, colourful products and high-tech equipment. However, dentistry is actually an ancient concept, steeped in a weird and wonderful history:

Dentistry

Imagine popping in to your local barbers, and instead of asking for a short back & sides, requesting a quick root canal instead. It may sound far-fetched, but up until the 1800s, the only place to get dental work done was at a barber shop!

The barbers would use intimidating contraptions such as dental pelicans and dental keys to remove teeth, right up until dentistry became a regulated and licensed profession in the late 19th century.

Tooth Decay

Although decay is a bit of a scary thought these days, it was an even more frightening prospect for our ancestors.

It was once a widespread belief that tooth decay was caused by a tooth worm, which would drink your blood and eat the roots of the tooth. Practitioners would try to ‘smoke’ the worm out by heating a mixture of beeswax and henbane seed on a piece of iron, before directing the fumes into the cavity with a funnel. 

The belief actually persisted until the 18th century, when the nightmarish idea was thankfully disproved by the french physician Pierre Fauchard. Thanks Pierre!

Toothbrushes

The modern, nylon brush we all know and love is a fairly modern invention – nylon bristles were first thought up in 1938 by the company Dupont de Nemours, and their first toothbrush was affectionately named ‘Doctor West’s Miracle Toothbrush’.

Before Doctor West graced us with his magical product though, the most common toothbrushes were made of bone or bamboo. These originated from 1500s China, where they assembled the brush using coarse hairs from the necks of boars!

Going back even further, the earliest instances of toothbrush-like tools are dated from 3000BC, where civilisations in Egypt and Babylon used ‘chew sticks’. These were thin twigs with frayed edges that were rubbed against the teeth – a far cry from an electric Oral B!

Toothpaste

Before the arrival of the minty stuff we use today, toothpaste started its life in Ancient Egypt, before the 4th century AD. According to a document found in a museum in Vienna, the ingredients for the perfect pearly whites are one drachma of rock salt, two drachmas of mint, one drachma of dried iris flower and 20 grains of pepper.

Apparently, the result is a pungent paste which, according to one Austrian dentist who tried it, makes the gums bleed but is a ‘big improvement’ on other historical toothpaste recipes.

This might seem like an outrageous statement, but other ancient toothpastes have included abrasive formulas made out of broken eggshells, bones, ox hooves and ashes, so he may have had a point!

Mouthwash

There’s nothing like the refreshing feeling of a modern mouthwash, but it took some time to perfect the recipe. 

In ancient Rome, the mouth rinse of choice was made using urine, which was such a commodity in the Roman Empire, that the Emperor Vespasian even introduced a urine tax!

Other early examples of mouthwash weren’t much better either, with people in the year 23 AD reportedly using goats milk, white wine and tortoise blood to maintain their oral hygiene – we think we’ll stick to our peppermint formula!

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