Our founding fathers are often viewed as larger than life, other-worldly type figures who flew into battle on the backs of bald eagles to free America from British tyranny.
Naturally, there is a great deal of myth and legend associated with these men – none more so than George Washington. One of the most enduring Washingtonian myths is the commonly held belief that George Washington had wooden teeth.
George Washington did not have wooden teeth, ever, at all. He DID have dentures, due to some pretty horrific dental issues, but they most certainly were not made from wood.
It is widely documented that Washington used a variety of full and partial dentures throughout his life. None of them were wooden (because how would that even work?). But they were made of some weird materials, including human, cow, and horse teeth, ivory, lead-tin alloy, and silver. Also included was gold metal wire and springs, and brass screws. Washington would even reuse his own previously pulled teeth in his dentures. After having the teeth pulled, he would immediately require they be mailed to his dentist to be put to good use.
Additionally, deep within one of Washington’s Mount Vernon account books is record of a transaction showing that Washington purchased 9 real teeth from ‘Negroes’ for 122 shillings. Historians aren’t sure if Washington was using these teeth for his dentures, or was a part of a blackmarket tooth smuggling ring…but it’s an interesting part of the story nonetheless.
As historian John Smith, Jr. wrote in the Journal of the American Revolution:
“George Washington never had wooden teeth, nor did anybody of his time. It would have been kind of dumb to make teeth out of wood when better materials were available.”
Literally no one at the time was using dentures made of wood. NO ONE. As early as 1700, dentures were being made of a variety of natural materials including the ivory of walrus, elephant, and hippopotamus tusks. The wealthiest folks had their dentures made using human teeth – which, believe it or not, were a hot commodity at the time.
These natural materials still decayed, however, so folks were often left with a second set of decaying teeth.
Washington suffered from dental issues his entire life. When he became president in 1789, he had only one tooth, a single premolar. Historians suspect it was due to a combination of bad genes and even worse 18th-century dentistry. Since a smile with a single tooth and a whole lot of gums wasn’t the most presidential look, Washington wore dentures.
Despite the legend of his physical strength, Washington’s failing teeth were a consistent source of suffering for him throughout his life. As early as age 24, Washington was getting his teeth yanked. Throughout his diary entries, he regularly talked about his aching teeth, swollen gums, ill-fitting dentures, and myriad other issues related to his mouth.
Now, back to the wood. The only explanation historians can come up with to explain the source of the ‘wooden denture’ myth is that, after months of usage, his dentures would become stained and take on an appearance similar to woodgrain due to little microfractures in the ivory or bone.
Washington’s dentist, John Greenwood, told him he was supposed to clean them daily…but George liked his wine. In a letter to Washington in 1798, Greenwood wrote him regarding a particular set of dentures sent to him:
“The sett you sent me from philadelphia…was very black…Port wine being sower takes off all the polish.”
The now fully discredited story of Washington’s wooden teeth does, however, have a slight shred of truth to it. Nothing to do with the wood, of course, but related to stories that were told about Washington spending time working on his own dentures. In one version of the ‘Wooden Teeth’ myth, it is said that Washington sat under a tree and carved the wooden teeth himself. While he never carved his own teeth, it is true, however, that he would often make repairs to dentures that were originally crafted by Greenwood.
It is also important to note that the ‘Wooden Teeth’ myth remains the only myth connected to a major Founder that highlights a physical frailty or issue. Washington sacrificed his health in dedication to public service – he experienced pretty significant pain and discomfort related to these dentures. Also, the size and composition of them led to some odd facial distortions, evidenced by his closed mouth and tight lips in virtually every portrait.
Perhaps the belief that Washington had dentures made out of wood, as opposed to the technologically advanced and expensive dentures he did wear, helped to make him more common and accessible to the average person. It balances the imposing status of the man presented in other myths like the ‘Cherry Tree’ legend, and humanizes a man who we otherwise place on an untouchable pedestal.
Or perhaps people just sometimes get weird ideas.