Filth, putrescence, and utter revulsion are probably not the words that come to mind when considering the pursuit of pearly whites. However, if you were to take a trip back in time, you would find that the desire to have sparkling teeth was the catalyst to some seriously disgusting ways people took care of their smiles.
It is no surprise that people fear the dentist given their proclivity to cause pain. But, if people had even the slightest inkling of the history of that profession, they would probably run away screaming. (Although some people still do that anyway.) The truth is, dentistry was just as much a “practice” as modern day medicine. However, the historic methods of such practice will turn anybody’s stomach. Check out these weird dental practices from the past.
Urine Toothpaste in Ancient RomePhoto: Wikimedia Commons
The story is that ancient Romans were so desirous of gleaming grins they chose to gargle and brush their teeth with human urine. As if that’s not gag-worthy enough, they also determined that urine from Portugal was the most desirable, as it was the strongest. Some suspect that the length of time it took to arrive is actually what amped up its intensity.
This same urine that made teeth whiter was actually capable of fighting cavities, too - and its popularity was still quite widespread into the 1700s. Shockingly, the man called the father of modern dentistry, Pierre Fauchard, wrote extensively about this practice in The Surgical Dentist, the first guide to dentistry.
He recommended rinsing one’s mouth with a spoonful of one’s own urine twice a day, claiming it provided a great deal of relief to people experiencing tooth pain and decay. He stated that one had to keep the urine in one’s mouth for a considerable amount of time and had to repeat the process for several days. He also admitted that the process was not very agreeable and was, therefore, an acquired taste.
The real shocker? Scientists say that urine is helpful for cleaning teeth thanks to its ammonia composition.
Vinegar & Pumice Stone in EgyptPhoto: LACMA / Wikimedia Commons
The pharaohs and their Egyptian constituents created a paste out of wine vinegar and pumice stone. The abrasiveness of the pumice, and cleansing properties of the vinegar, aided in the realization of glowing smiles.
Aqua Fortis in the Middle AgesPhoto: Georg Agricola / Wikimedia Commons
In the Renaissance and Middle Ages, barbers (who were often dually employed as surgeons) devoted time to their clientele’s choppers. They were prone to utilizing aqua fortis (a fancy way of saying "nitric acid") on the teeth they had painstakingly filed to luminous perfection. Unfortunately, the nitric acid was highly corrosive. So, those gorgeous teeth quickly decayed thanks to the elimination of the enamel.
Traveling Tooth-Pullers WorldwidePhoto: Franz Anton Maulbertsch / Wikimedia Commons
Surely you're familiar with traveling salesmen - people who went door to door, selling things like vacuums and other household items. With that in mind, conjure up the image of a barber-surgeon traveling from town to town offering to remove one’s decaying teeth.
Don’t forget: there was no anesthesia. So the show would go on with local townspeople getting their teeth ripped out by the traveling tooth puller. People would stop and gawk at their friends and neighbors in horror and pain.
And if they could make it through all that, they might get a shave and a haircut in the deal too.