The Black and White (and Gray) Truth of Victorian Teeth: a Steampunk Perspective

Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth,

And spotted the dangers beneath

All the toffees I chewed,

And the sweet sticky food.

Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth. – Pam Ayres

 

I started researching this blog post when I saw an online article about how the Victorians liked to have blackened and rotting teeth as a sign of a high status. I’ve searched and searched, but I can’t find a definitive historical source referring to this practice, but I have found a whole lot of information about teeth and dentistry in the Victorian era. As always, the truth is much more complex than I first suspected.

It is hard to know where to begin, but let’s first look at original source, since it inspired this post: In the Victorian Era, it was fashionable to have rotting dentistry. Having black teeth displayed your affluence and ability to afford sugar products and confectionaries. Some upper-class citizens used to paint their teeth black to emphasise the effect.

Firstly, there is some evidence that might support this. There was a heavy tax on sugar as a commodity, and the tax wasn’t repealed until 1874. So being able to indulge in sweet and sticky foods was probably linked to high status before 1874. And where there is toffy, there is tooth decay.

The modern habit of using all foods sloppy or artificially prepared has much to answer for in the way of dirty teeth. Notice the difference between such a simple thing as whole-meal bread and white bread! The former is much less likely to stick between the teeth, and the flakes in it have a scrubbing action on the enamel, which white flour bread has not. The black bread of the peasants of other lands, and of England in bygone times, not only from its chemical constituents, but from its mechanical action, did much for the preserving of the teeth, and as a result the best teeth are not to be found among the higher classes who take the most artificial care of them, but among those peasant races that live on the hardiest teeth-cleaning foods. Quite an unsuspected cause of dental decay is the use of flesh foods and soft starch foods. The fibres of the flesh get between the teeth, and there rapidly decay. This constitutes the great difference between the fibres of meat and the fibres of the liquorice root. The latter cleanse and do not decay, the former decay and do not cleanse. The best thing to do is to see that the daily food contains something or other which will give teeth work of a cleansing character. A thick piece of wholemeal bread is fairly good; but the chewing of liquorice root, or sugar cane, or some other fibrous substance (like tough celery) is still better. If using a toothpick, use a quill or a bamboo splint, or a thorn from a hawthorn bush. Don’t use pins or needles, or metal or any sort. – Mothers and Daughters, 1890

Secondly, the Victorian era saw a sudden increase in scientific methods applied to the act of dentistry, like powered drills and tooth keys for extractions; this implies that there was a dire need for dentistry. Dentistry evolved from being a trade into a highly respected profession, and so the British government began to regulate it by the end of the 19th century, with the Dentist Act was passed in 1878 and the British Dental Association formed in 1879. This increased respectability implies that the upper classes were eager to go to the dentist – well, eager to have the pain of rotting teeth alleviated.

Then there was the Victorian practice of not smiling for a camera. At the start of the art of photography, the sitters had to remain still for some time and trying to maintain a smile was difficult. Even when photography improved to the point that it only took a few seconds to capture an image, people tended not to smile … and it is assumed this is because they were hiding their bad teeth. But doesn’t that go against the idea that bad teeth were a symbol of high status?

Queen Victoria is about as high status as you can get, and it is rumoured that she was mostly photographed with a closed mouth because of her poor teeth. Not so. She did have trouble with her teeth, but when she was a girl a small mouth was considered quite as lovely as lush, large lips are fashionable now. I’m guessing a lot of those prunes & prism mouths in photographs are due to ladies trying to maintain a fashionably small mouth. And there are photos of her smiling and her smile looks just fine.

Off topic, Queen Victoria had a brooch given to her by Prince Albert, made with the milk tooth of their daughter, Princess Victoria. This unusual and tiny brooch was made in the form of a thistle has, with the first milk tooth lost by their firstborn as the flower. An inscription on the reverse states the tooth was pulled by Prince Albert at Ardverikie (Loch Laggan), on September 13, 1847. I think this is a pretty way of having a keepsake of one’s child.

Back on topic! The British still have a reputation for bad teeth, but it wasn’t because they neglect them and ruin them with sweets and refined food. This reputation has lingered on into modern times.

 

TEETH by Spike Milligan

 

English Teeth, English Teeth!

Shining in the sun

A part of British heritage

Aye, each and every one.

English Teeth, Happy Teeth!

Always having fun

Clamping down on bits of fish

And sausages half done.

English Teeth! HEROES’ Teeth!

Hear them click! and clack!

Let’s sing a song of praise to them –

Three Cheers for the Brown, Grey, and Black.

It isn’t just the British upper classes who took to the practice of blackening teeth. Ohaguro is the historical Japanese custom of dyeing one’s teeth black. It was a popular practice in Japan until the Meiji era, when it was outlawed in 1870 – so it was still around in the Victorian era. Tooth painting was and is also known and practiced in the Southeast parts of China, the Pacific Islands and in Southeast Asia. Teeth dyeing was mainly for fashion or for special occasions, even though the practice was actually beneficial as it prevented tooth decay, in a similar fashion to modern dental sealants.

From a writer’s viewpoint, all this information is pure gold, and not just the dental kind. Nothing improves characterization or a setting like a little local colour (pun intended). Rotting teeth could signify a character rotten to the core.

 

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6 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Historical Personage, History, Setting, Steampunk

6 responses to “The Black and White (and Gray) Truth of Victorian Teeth: a Steampunk Perspective

  1. Pingback: Crazy cures of the past – How medicine has moved on – Healthiestlife4me.com

  2. Julian Yaqub

    There’s an Edwardian dentist at Beamish, the reconstructed historical town in the North of England. I suspect their dental reconstruction (boom boom) probably stands true for the late-Victorian era. Nothing about blackened teeth there – I’ve only heard that in reference to the Elizabethan era. But it does describe how it was far from unusual for people to have ALL their teeth removed when they were young adults – paying for the procedure was considered to be an acceptable wedding present! http://www.beamish.org.uk/.

    • Yikes. My mum had all her teeth removed as a teenager, and she wouldn’t recommend the procedure to anyone!

      Thank you sharing this information about Beamish. I will have to investigate (0nline, as I am located in Australia).

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