There’s a still-famous French play from the 1700s called Candide. In it the character Dr. Pangloss exclaims, “Surely this is the best of all possible worlds.” When it comes to dental hygiene however, it’s certain most of us would agree that today’s modern world is superior (and much better smelling) than back then.
Habits and techniques have varied across time and cultures, of course, but the fact remains that what we consider even the bare minimums in dental hygiene are relatively recent developments. Take, for example, the common toothbrush. It wasn’t patented until 1857. Powders intended to be used in conjunction with the brushes often contained ingredients such as chalk, pulverized brick and charcoal. Toothpaste in collapsible tubes was not available until the 1890s and didn’t surpass tooth powder in popularity until nearly 1920.
The lack of specialized brushes and dentifrice doesn’t mean people in earlier times were unconcerned with dental hygiene. (Bad breath is bad no matter what era.) Perhaps the simplest practice was rinsing the mouth with water, but that alone is often insufficient at removing stubborn food particles. That’s why the more fastidious would employ a cloth or a frayed stick to rub on and between the teeth.
Primitive tooth powders were sometimes employed. These could include burned spices, a combination of sage and salt, pepper and – more familiar to our modern sensibilities – peppermint. This later technique really was somewhat effective in combating bad breath, and was expanded to include the chewing of spices such as cinnamon, mace, cloves, bay leaves and nutmeg. For tooth whitening, some people would use a rinse of vinegar and salt.
Examination of people’s teeth from early times often reveals less incidences of tooth decay, thought to be attributable to a diet much lower in sugars than people have today. On the other hand, if a tooth did become infected, removal (often performed by the local barber) was the only treatment.
So next time you’re feeling a little put-out at having to brush, floss and rinse, take a moment to think about your ancestors and be thankful.