Monday, December 7, 2015

A Pirate’s Toothy Smile

Dentistry in the 18th century. 

One of the things I didn’t especially like about Pirates of the Caribbean was the teeth. This may sound a little odd, but I’ve known for a while that the way teeth are shown in the movie are pretty much backward. Jack and company have horrible teeth, brown and marked with many crude metal fillings, While Elizabeth and her father sport healthy white smiles. This isn’t quite the way it fell out during the Golden Age of Piracy.

While tooth decay goes back as far as humanity, sugar has been the worst culprit when creating dental problems for humanity. And during the Golden Age, sugar was primarily a food for the rich.

Working class folks, pirates included, ate meat, bread, and vegetables, usually boiled. Luxuries involved butter and cream, fruit, and roasted foul.

“Gentlefolk” like Elizabeth and her father would have enjoyed cakes, custards, and “comfits” – small seeds or bits of fruit dipped into sugar syrup and dried. Flowers such as violets and rose petals were also dipped in sugar and eaten. Chocolate was not on the menu, except as a rather bitter drink, but tea and coffee might contain sugar.

This was a new phenomenon. Honey, the sweetener of choice before sugar became available, does not have the tooth- decaying properties of sugar. Honey, in fact, contains natural antibiotics which can actually protect teeth from decay. It was the white sugar from New World plantations that brought rampant tooth decay into the lives of Europeans.

Notice the teeth

Of course, pirates had their own dental issues. Excessive alcohol consumption is not good for the teeth, and smoking can also cause problems. But these attack the gums more than the teeth, loosening teeth and causing direct tooth loss. Scurvy, that most nautical of diseases (actually a deficiency in vitamin C) also caused direct tooth loss.

It wasn’t unusual for a working-class person to be missing a noticeable number of teeth by the time they were in their thirties. And women often loss “a tooth for every child” as the saying went. Developing fetuses leached calcium from a woman’s bones and teeth, often leading to dental problems.

But it was the rich who sported truly terrible teeth.

Of course, they also had the best access to dental care, such as it was. This usually meant attempts to removed decay, plug holes in teeth and remove painful teeth. There was no such thing as toothpaste, and even the toothbrush was over a hundred years away.

So what was dental care like?

Dental drills existed, but they were hand drills, little more than pointed bits of metal with a handle, used to scrape decay out of rotting teeth. All of this was done without anesthesia, of course.

Once a cavity was cleaned out, attempts might be made to plug it with soft metals such as tin, gold or silver. These wore badly, of course, and often didn’t stay in the tooth. Other substances used in an effort to plug holes in teeth included resin, wax, and even stone chips. None of it worked very well.

Sophisticated “dental surgeons” might also treat holes in teeth via chemicals. Henbane, an herb, soaked in heated vinegar, might be poured into the hole. This was problematic, since the herb is poisonous, and could cause hallucinations or even death. But it was probably safer than powdered mercury, which some practitioners suggested dropping into the hole at least 3 times a day. Mercury is extremely poisonous, so doctors recommended spitting it out after it had done its work.

Medical science, such as it was, labored under a rather jarring misconception. They believed that cavities were caused by worms burrowing into the tooth, and their goal was to kill the worm. Steps taken to do this often killed the tooth as well. This ended the sufferer’s pain, however.

Most dental work meat pulling teeth. Many cities had a tooth-puller, a man who went in with “crooked pliers” to grab a tooth an pull it out – no painkillers. If no professional tooth-puller was available, a barber or even a blacksmith might be persuaded to give dental care a shot. Barbers worked regularly as low-cost surgeons, due mostly to their skill with sharp tools. Blacksmiths had a variety of tongs available, and also had impressive upper-body strength, useful in puling molars.

The rich could also afford to have teeth replaced. Replacement teeth might be made of ivory, wood or even the teeth or poor people, purchased for the purpose. These teeth might be formed into dentures, or if they replaced only a few missing teeth, tied into the mouth with silk thread or wired in with gold wire.

Of course, prevention is better than cure. Though mouthwash wouldn’t exist for a long, long time, people did try to take care of their teeth. They chewed tree bark as a preventative measure, rinsed their mouths with vinegar, and scrubbed their teeth with salt, or mixtures of herbs crushed into a piece of line cloth and then rubbed on the gums. Parsley was also eaten as a method of cleaning the teeth (part of the reason parsley is used as a garnish). People also cleaned their teeth with honey, which, used as a sweetener, might have solved a lot of the problem in the first place.


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