Waterloo teeth, courtesy of the BND
As the owner of a mouth that’s been around for a while, I’ve had my share of dental indignity, the probing and the replacements, and a cap or two (better make that three).
All that oral intrusion has never, to the best of my knowledge, involved borrowing a dead man’s teeth.
This line of thought was suggested by half-overhearing a programme on BBC Radio 4, purveyor of knowledge scraps to the middle classes. You know how it is, as you rush around, perhaps in the car to work or maybe at home doing the washing up – it’s a high-flying sort of life – and something pops up on the radio and hovers before your ear like a humming-bird.
What I half-heard was a snippet about Waterloo teeth, the name given to the teeth that went into early dentures. These teeth were yanked from the mouths of dead soldiers and then sold to the makers of false teeth.
A good historical snippet can slap you in the face in a way that the dates and the battles and the kings and the queens never do.
Had I but world enough and time, as the poet almost said, I’d go off and do some proper research, as this is just the sort of history to bite into. But I don’t so a quick Google has to suffice.
A report on the BBC website from June 2015 adds further enamel to the history of Waterloo teeth. The dentures do not appear to have been called that at the time, and it is not clear that people who bought the falsies knew some of the teeth had been extracted from the mouths of the dead.
The report quotes Rachel Bairsto, curator of the British Dental Association’s museum in central London, who suggests that it was a matter of convenience: the battlefield provided lots of bodies in one place and above ground. The teeth would have been pulled out with pliers by surviving troops and locals, and “by scavengers who had travelled from Britain”.
Molars were less popular thanks to difficulty of extraction. The front teeth, as shown in the photograph borrowed from the BDA, were shaped and sorted to give the appearance that they had come from the same mouth, and then strung up for sale.
Jokes about the British having bad teeth are a stock of American humour, with one episode of the Simpsons featuring a dentist who bullies a child into better oral hygiene by exposing him to a scary publication called The Big Book of British Smiles, all gappy, unaligned teeth belonging to famous Brits.
The poor state of our teeth has probably been much exaggerated in the cause of making Americans chuckle, but in the late 18th and early 18th century, our mouths were rotten, thanks in part to the popularity of sugar.
An advert from 1792 – 23 years before that dental pilfering at Waterloo – was placed in a newspaper, asking: “WANTED – SEVERAL HUMAN FRONT TEETH. To prevent unnecessary applications, those only are wanted that are sent from the Continent…”
In other words, the dentist, a Mr Woffendale, would not have wanted inferior teeth looted from British mouths.
Sadly, I have run out of time and need to get my renovated teeth working on brunch before work.