George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate has declared that it will no longer sell a souvenir depicting the President’s false teeth considering the criticism that followed the rumors saying those dentures were made with teeth pulled from the mouth of his slaves.
Critics said that to keep continuing the sale trivialized the fact that the slaves had to give up their own teeth in order to make dentures for the President. Although Washington’s diary records show that they were paid for the teeth, they essentially had no choice in giving up their teeth.
The old story that Washington’s dentures were made up of wood has long been proved to be false. In fact, Washington had multiple sets of dentures, and they were made of ivory, metal alloys and teeth of other humans- most possibly his own slaves.
Looking at the dental history of President, he got his first tooth removed in 1756 when he was just 24 years old. By 1781 he was wearing partial dentures and switched to complete dentures by 1789.
There is no guarantee that the teeth mentioned are in his own dentures but it is quite possible that the President purchased the teeth from his slaves in order to reduce the cost of his prosthesis.
The use of human teeth in dentures might sound strange but they were much preferable to other materials. As it was not always possible to get human teeth for dentures, dentists used mammalian teeth which were not as comfortable as human teeth.
While it may seem particularly gruesome, a perfectly acceptable means of making money was by selling teeth to dentists. Since at least the end of the Middle Ages, very poor people have sold their teeth for use in both dentures and in tooth transplant operations to benefit those wealthy enough to afford these procedures.
Healthy incisors, preferably from young, healthy donors, were necessary for transplantation. Whereas, teeth used in dentures could be either incisors or molars and might even be taken from corpses.
An impeccable set of teeth was needed for a good image of the President and therefore good oral hygiene were in some ways subject to national symbolism.