• Weird History

How Teeth Have Indicated Status Throughout History

A pearly-white smile wasn't always the status symbol it is today. In fact, people in the past frequently blackened or filed their teeth - some even replaced their teeth with gold as an indication of their wealth. Throughout history, teeth have been linked to status, and as such, dental fashion has changed over time. The ancient Romans went to extreme lengths to whiten their teeth, even using urine as a whitening agent. George Washington wanted a perfect smile so badly, he bought human teeth for his dentures. Ancient Egyptians filled their cavities with barley and honey, while ancient Etruscan women pulled their front teeth to make room for gold grills.  

Today, Hollywood celebrities show off fake teeth as a status symbol. In the past, powerful people sometimes adorned their teeth with jade or drank iron to turn their teeth black. When royals make bizarre choices, they often create new fashion trends: Queen Elizabeth's proclivity for sweets turned her teeth black, and social climbers were soon after blackening their teeth to appear rich. Here's how teeth have represented status throughout history.

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  • The First Toothbrush Dates Back 5,000 Years

    Photo: Fritz von Uhde / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    People didn't begin brushing their teeth until around 3000 BCE. The Egyptians and the Babylonians were the first to fashion rudimentary toothbrushes from twigs. By 1600 BCE, the Chinese had developed "chew sticks," which they used to freshen their breath. 

    Surprisingly, prehistoric people living before the advent of the toothbrush had very few dental problems. This was likely due to their diet of unprocessed, fibrous foods. Conveniently, their food helped clean their teeth while they ate. 

  • Ancient Egyptians Filled Their Teeth With Barley, Ochre, Or Linen

    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    In ancient Egypt, the wealthy could afford dental procedures. By the 16th century BCE, Egyptians were using dental fillings. Some fillings were made of ground barley mixed with honey and yellow ochre. The mixture was designed to keep loose teeth in place. 

    Egyptian mummies provide evidence of ancient dental practices: A 2,100-year-old mummy was found with cavities filled with linen. 

  • Ancient Etruscans Replaced Their Teeth With Gold

    The connection between teeth and status has changed over time. Bright white teeth weren't always a status symbol: In ancient Etruscan society, wealthy people often removed their teeth to make room for flashy gold replacements.

    Anthropologist Marshall Joseph Becker explained, "Certain high-status Etruscan women deliberately had [teeth] removed in order to be fitted with a gold band appliance holding a replacement, or reused, tooth." Etruscan women sought out goldsmiths to acquire these appliances.

    The Roman poet Martial mocked women for their vanity: "You use your teeth and hair that are bought and you are not embarrassed. What will you do about your eye, though, Laelia? They don't sell them."

  • Mayans Decorated Their Teeth With Gems

    Photo: David Dennis / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    In Mesoamerica, the Mayan people often filed down their teeth and decorated them with minerals. These dental modifications weren't simply a matter of style; they were also undertaken for ritual and religious purposes. Mayans fashioned jade inlays by boring holes into teeth with copper tubes and then fitting them with stones.

    Mayans decorated their teeth with many different minerals, including turquoise and quartz.