At his inauguration, George Washington had just one tooth left. Mount Vernon curator Laura Simo describes history’s most famous set of dentures.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Presidents Day is an occasion to reflect on the leaders who shaped our nation. History encourages us to remember their greatest accomplishments, but sometimes we can gain an extra insight by examining the smaller details of a person's life.
Today we're examining one of the smaller details of George Washington's life with Mount Vernon curator, Laura Simo, who we caught up with today to talk about America's most famous set of dentures. Laura, thank you for being here with us today.
Laura Simo: Thank you so much for having me.
Harmony: Well, George Washington's dentures are probably one of his most identifiable personal characteristics. When did he start wearing dentures? Why did he need them?
Laura: Well, I think the story can go back all the way to when he was in his early 20s. We know that by the mid-1750s, by about 1754 or '55 he had already lost his first adult tooth or had that extracted. Historians have thought that pretty much every year since then, or every few years since the 1750s, he would have more and more teeth pulled due to persistent dental problems.
I believe he wore his first or had his first partial denture made already by the early 1780s and by the time he was inaugurated as the first President of the United States in 1789 he had just one tooth remaining in his mouth: his lower left bicuspid. So, constant tooth loss over the years was the reason why he had to wear dentures. He simply did not have his own natural teeth left.
Harmony: Poor George. So ever since he was a young man, he had suffered and had to have teeth extracted. Do we know the reasons, the sickness, the infections, why he was losing so many teeth? Was it common?
Laura: Well, you know, that's a great question because first of all I think because we know so much about George Washington and because he is such a prominent figure in our nation's history, that his dental troubles can be a bit overblown. I think there were many people in the 18th century who suffered from similar dental problems as George Washington, but they're not in the same spotlight as he is. So their problems go rather unnoticed. So again, I think sometimes his dental problems are really emphasized and perhaps overemphasized.
But as to the specific causes, part of it was probably genetic. There was also where medical and dental science and understanding were during George Washington's lifetime. Perhaps some of the measures that they thought were helping could have possibly been hurting him. We know, for example, that last tooth that he had in his mouth, he had a set of dentures that was specially made to fit over that lower left bicuspid. It's thought that, unfortunately, the movement and rubbing of those dentures around that tooth might have actually contributed to its final loss.
The one thing that we know is that Washington took very good care of his teeth, or the best care he could take of his teeth. So a lack of dental hygiene is not a reason for Washington's dental problems. In fact, one of the earliest purchases that Washington has is of two tooth brushes is in May of 1755. At that point, Washington is on the frontier traveling with the British Army as a colonel in the Virginia Regiment and orders two toothbrushes for himself.
So very early indication and throughout his life would order, repeatedly order, brushes, scalers, scrapers, pastes, powders, brews like washes and rinses and things like that. Really anything, kind of the latest advancements that were available to take care of your teeth, your mouth, oral and dental hygiene. Washington was very, took very good care of his mouth and his teeth by all accounts.
Harmony: What do we know about how this persistent tooth loss and gum infection, how that affected Washington's life? I imagine he must have been in some pretty serious discomfort. We know that he was a very shy public speaker. Did it affect the foods that he was able to eat? How did that really affect his life?
Laura: Yes. I think someone like George Washington is very aware of his appearance and very aware of the image he wants to present of himself. It's very important for him at that time that he show what his status, his wealth, his economic standing, his social standing. It's very important that you live up to that standard, if not, exceed it. So exactly, I think, having the persistent problem that's so visible and so apparent at times must have made him extremely uncomfortable.
I think you're exactly right that it could lead others to conclude sometimes that he was cold, taciturn, melancholy. Again, this starts happening very early in his life, as early as 1760. One of his fellow officers in the Virginia regiment, George Mercer, wrote to a friend in England that his mouth is "large and generally firmly closed," and also noted that Washington had some defective teeth. So again, you're talking as a very young man people are noticing that you have dental issues. And then you live with that for the rest of your life as such a central figure on a stage. It must have made him very uncomfortable.
Harmony: Do we know anything about the diet that he followed, if that did change what he was able to eat?
Laura: Yeah, again that's a tough thing to say. We know from Martha Washington's granddaughter that one of his favorite breakfasts was hoecakes or like Indian corn meal, kind of mush cakes swimming in butter and honey. That clearly would have a soft texture or consistency to it. But I think it's difficult to say just from his food purchases over the years for his household how it changed his diet, although I must imagine that he must have gone towards softer foods, things that wouldn't pull a full set of dentures out of line.
Harmony: Well I can't have you here talking to you about George Washington's teeth without asking you if it's true that they're wooden.
Laura: Absolutely not, and I'm so glad you asked that because a lot of people still, it's a very persistent myth that Washington's teeth were made of wood. Washington's dentures were made of animal teeth, cow being one of them. The base for the dentures would have been in ivory, probably hippopotamus although elephant and walrus have also been suggested. There were also some human teeth that would have been mixed in with the animal teeth to make up his dentures.
It's known that eating certain foods, then as now, will stain your teeth and so one thought out there is that maybe over time that the teeth had been discolored and maybe that's where that came from. But again no, definitely not. None of the dentures that we know of that Washington owned and that medical dental history tells us about were ever made of wood. I would think that's not a very good material to make teeth out of either if you're going to be drinking liquids. It just doesn't seem to be a very good material to be making teeth out of either.
Harmony: Mount Vernon owns a complete set of George Washington's dentures. I imagine you've had the pleasure of holding them and studying them.
Laura: there are actually four dentures belonging to Washington that we know of. Mount Vernon's example, which has a lead base and then again teeth that are both animal and human, Mount Vernon's is the only complete set; so an upper and lower, and those were made by his dentist John Greenwood in the 1790s.
I've had the great pleasure, I guess you could say the great pleasure, I never grew up thinking I would one day handle George Washington's dentures, but I've handled both Mount Vernon's complete set, the only complete set, and also the lower jaw denture from the New York Academy of Medicine.
I have to say it is, it's a rather humbling experience for me to handle Washington's dentures. You see portraits of Washington everywhere. I mean, he's with us every day on the dollar bill and on the quarter and he always, to me, has such a formal, such a pulled-together sort of presence. To handle something that would have been such a sensitive issue for Washington, you really have a newfound respect for him that he had to persist through any problems and any pain that he had.
Harmony: What do you learn about Washington when you look at those dentures?
Laura: What I take from him is so many things, and the dentures really bring this home, is responsibility and a real stand up guy. You know when the nation calls on him to serve as Commander in Chief, when he's elected as President of the United States, trust me, he much rather would be home at Mount Vernon. That's where his heart was and that's for so much of it too where his mind was.
But despite whatever his personal problems were, he was there when the nation needed him. And to me I think those dentures are a great example of that even given the most maybe embarrassing sort of a problem you could imagine. I mean, here you are being called upon to speak in front of large groups of people, you're being called upon to speak to other heads of state, to eat with other heads of state, visiting ministers and so forth you're constantly seeing. The constant stream of visitors that are coming through the executive mansion and Mount Vernon and you've got to persist through all of that with this problem that is not going away.
And through all that Washington does it with flying colors, in my opinion, so that's what I think I take away from him. It gave me newfound respect for Washington. It really did and really does.
Harmony: Thank you so much for being our guest today and sharing this story with us.
Laura: Oh, you're welcome very much and we certainly hope that your listeners will come by Mount Vernon and see the New York Academy of Medicine's dentures and come back again when we have our full set on view as well. More information on the dentures can be found under the objects tab if you go to www.mountvernon.org.