A Look At Dental Care Throughout History

8 April 2022

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Have you ever watched a period piece (Vikings, anyone?) and wondered – how did they keep their teeth clean back then? After all, it wasn’t like they could hop online and casually order a ZenyumSonic™ or ZenyumFresh™ Toothpaste in between their court jester gigs and slave-trading voyages.

Well, get your popcorn because we’re about to embark on another juicy period piece for you to sink your teeth into. Keep reading to find out all about oral care (or, lack thereof) and bizarre dental practices in different cultures through the ages! 

Once you’re done with this article, we’re pretty sure you’ll be looking at your humble toothbrush through a brand new sheen of gratitude.

The Classical Era: Egyptians Invent Toothpaste Version 1.0!

The ancient Egyptians are known for many things – from their somewhat…linear family trees (did you know that Cleopatra married her own brother?) to their mummification processes that spawned a four-part action movie series. But did you know they’re also credited with the invention of toothpaste?

The first iteration of toothpaste (traced back to 400 AD) followed this recipe, which we definitely do not recommend for you to try to recreate, unless you’re trying to make a dry rub for meat.

  • One drachma (equal to 1/100 of an ounce) of rock salt
  • Two drachma of mint
  • One drachma of dried iris flower
  • 20 grains of pepper
  • Crush and mix with a bit of water to form a paste

 

According to Dr. Heinz Neuman, a dentist who tried the recipe, it made his gums bleed. Despite that though, his mouth did feel fresh and clean. Ironically enough, this simple toothpaste recipe would actually be considered an improvement compared to what we would go on to use for toothpaste later on! Don’t be tempted though. Modern toothpaste is still miles ahead of this rudimentary formula. 

And for your teeth’s sake, keep your hands off that pepper grinder!

2. The Middle Ages: Barber, DDS

When you’ve got a killer toothache, the barbershop is probably the last place you’d go to get it sorted. Well, consider yourself blessed. 

Through the Middle Ages (1300s to 1500s), formulations like the one the Egyptians made were still being used to some degree. Failing that, many people were using rough linen clothes and water to literally scrub their teeth clean with good old fashioned elbow grease. Thankfully, due to the astronomical prices of sugar at the time, most common people had decent dental health! (Hmm, food for thought for a sugar tax policy…)

So where exactly does Dr. Barber, DDS, come in? Well, if you did find yourself with an unbearable toothache, there was no dentist to go to. Instead, you’d try to get drunk off whatever alcohol you had available to numb the pain, and go to a barber to have the offending tooth pulled out.

3. The Victorian Era: Something Borrowed, Something Blue, Something Extracted…

Dental care remained largely undeveloped up until the Victorian era (1830s to early 1901), when dentistry started picking up. But! Good dentists were only really available to the very wealthy. So what did the common folk do about their toothaches?

Even though toothpaste did exist in the 1850s, it wasn’t the smash hit we’re familiar with today. Tooth powders were still way more popular, and the only toothpaste available was in jars that the whole family dipped their toothbrushes into. Which, we’d just like to say, eww

These popular tooth powders, which contained ingredients like chalk and betelnut, were no match for the rising popularity of sugar and the dental havoc that sugar consumption wreaked.

So what was the solution? After all, dental care was costly. So, in order to save their husband’s money on future dental bills, Victorian era brides would have all their teeth (yes, every last one!) extracted and replaced with a set of dentures made of ivory (if you were bougie) or wood (if you weren’t). 

You know the saying “mo’ money, mo’ problems”? Think more along the lines of “no teeth, no problems”, and you’re basically a Victorian yourself!

4. The 1940s: Modern Toothpaste Makes An Appearance

From the 1850s to 1940s, toothpaste existed and became increasingly popular. In the 1920s, we switched to the familiar tube packaging, supposedly inspired by artist’s paints. For a while, toothpaste tubes were made of a mix of tin and lead! One of the only benefits of the metal shortage caused by World War 2 was that it made manufacturers turn to metal and plastic for the toothpaste tube. 

As the dental industry developed, they began removing the abrasives that scrubbed away your enamel, and added fluoride to fight against tooth decay. As dentists became more familiar with what was beneficial for our teeth, toothpaste manufacturers continued tweaking the recipe to what we have today!

There you have it – from ancient Egyptians all the way up to the invention of modern toothpaste! We’re definitely grateful for the advancements that allow us to safely and affordably brush our teeth. And twice a day at that! So let’s count our blessings, and not forget to stock up on some toothpaste, housed in a safe, lead-free tube. Without the pepper!

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