How Early Americans Took Care of Their Teeth

dental hygiene practices in america

Imagine if, instead of brushing and flossing, you had to fill your mouth with charcoal to clean your teeth. It’s an unappealing thought, yet it was reality for many early Americans who didn’t have the benefit of toothbrushes and toothpaste, let alone family dentistry. Early Americans -- from Native Americans to the Pilgrims to the Founding Fathers -- found creative ways to help prevent tooth decay, even if those methods would make us cringe today. They were unpleasant and often ineffective, which explains why so many of these early residents, like our first president, had to have dentures.

How did people clean their teeth before toothpaste or toothbrushes?

Salt, rough cloths and charcoal don’t fit the definition of gentle dentistry, yet that was the way people would care for their teeth. Often, they would use water and a rough cloth, scrubbing their teeth. Salt and charcoal were often rubbed across the teeth and then rinsed away. However, the most common way of taking care of teeth involved taking a birch twig and fraying the end, making a primitive brush. Dental powders were also used. They were made from strange concoctions of burned eggshells ashes and animal hooves.

What did they do for dental emergencies?

Today, when you have a dental emergency, you can take advantage of the latest first-aid techniques, easily access a dentist on-call or have a walk-in appointment. However, if you were some of the first American settlers, emergency dentistry didn’t remotely resemble what we have today. Often, there was a town surgeon (in some cases, this was also the barber) who would pull the tooth or possibly try to fight the infections by applying cabbage worms that would eat away at the damaged tissue. This may have been a common treatment because there was a pervasive belief that dental pain was caused by a worm traveling through the mouth. This theory was not debunked until the 1700s.

The first “official” toothbrush in America

American innovator H.N, Wadsworth held the first patent for a toothbrush in 1857, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that nylon bristles made toothbrushes look more like the ones seen today. In fact, it wasn’t until after WWII that Americans developed the habit of brushing their teeth regularly. This was a habit that American G.I.s brought back with them from Europe.

Thank goodness for modern dentistry!

At our office, you’ll find no twigs, no charcoal and no burned eggshells! You’ll find only the most advanced technology practiced by our wonderful, enthusiastic health care family. The last decade has seen revolutionary advancements in dental care, and we implement these latest techniques to create the highest level of care from 3D printing to advanced pediatric dentistry to digital imaging. At Dental Express, we utilize all these tools because we specialize in providing the best in family dentistry, whether you need help following a dental emergency or you need the light touch of gentle dentistry. Contact us to learn more about how we can serve you and your family. ___ Dental Express offers dental care for the entire family, including SmileCorrect, implants, emergency dental care and maintenance services. With four convenient locations in San Diego, our practice features compassionate care coupled with state-of-the-art technology. Contact us to schedule an appointment today. ___

Sources:

Scholastic. (Teacher Educational Resources.) Daily Life in the 1620s Online. Strauss, Valerie. “Ever Wondered How People Cleaned Their Teeth Before They Had Toothbrushes?” The Washington Post. Online. University of Michigan School of Dentistry. “A Timeline of Dental Hygiene.” Online.

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