If Regency-era Dentists Did Not Recommend Brushing Twice a Day, They Should Have!

The first half of the 19th Century saw the introduction of porcelain teeth, from “The dentures made from the teeth of dead soldiers at Waterloo” by Paul Kerley, June 16, 2015

Though dental hygiene was becoming a regular part of personal care in the Regency, it was certainly not up to the standards of modern times. If one purchased a toothbrush in the Regency era, it was boar-bristled and bone-handled. Dental care would have been an expense many of the working class could not afford. Though more dental products were available for purchase, the conventional ways to clean one’s teeth included tree bark with tooth powder mixtures: abrasive ingredients like chalk and antiseptic; detergents like borax; or, astringents like extracts from the bayberry leaf. One might add peppermint to make it palatable. Still, I cannot think it was easy to make nor pleasant to use.

Fortunately for those in the Regency, the commercialized sale of tooth powders was on the rise, so those who did not have the time or inclination to make a tooth powder had ready access to them, provided they could afford it. However, rich foods, sauces, heavy creams, and tea led to tooth decay. The resulting bad breath did not make for pleasant conversation either. With varying degrees of success, home remedies were concocted from comfits to sucking on a mint leaf.

18th c. silver flask-shaped comfit box, Vic “Regency Medicine: Dentistry,” Jane Austen’s World, August 11, 2011
Anise comfits, Vic “Regency Medicine: Dentistry,” Jane Austen’s World, August 11, 2011

Like today, tooth extractions were to be avoided. There were no numbing agents, and a dentist would yank the tooth out with calipers if the pain became impossible. While many did not yet attend their dental health, dental cosmetics were widely practiced, including filing down teeth to hide or erase the traces of decay or purchasing teeth, much like one might order dentures today. In fact, the teeth of dead soldiers, from the newly deceased, and even animals were repurposed to make a set of teeth for someone who had lost their own, should they have enough money to make such a purchase as the cost was significant. But what would someone do if they could not afford the dentist? Barbers and local blacksmiths were applied to for these same services until the 1820s. Barbers used instruments known as “dental pelicans” or “dental keys” to perform procedures or extract teeth, and blacksmiths already had the sharp tools needed. Some extractions were so intense and done incorrectly that they would break the jaws of patients. Fortunately, dentists were more frequently found throughout the country beginning in the 1820s.

A cartoon showing a tooth extraction, BBC News “When blacksmiths were dentists” July 17, 2010

Sources for If Regency-era Dentists Did Not Recommend Brushing Twice a Day, They Should Have!:

Milan, Aidan “Don’t lust after the Bridgerton lifestyle too hard – Regency-era dentistry was a nightmare” METRO Wednesday, February 3, 2021 https://metro.co.uk/2021/02/03/sorry-bridgerton-fans-regency-era-dentistry-was-a-nightmare-13979637/#:~:text=Kailesh%20says%3A%20%E2%80%98As%20you%20might%20expect%2C%20standards%20of,to%20have%20lost%20many%20teeth%20by%20middle%20age.

Vic, “Dental Hygiene in the Regency Period,” Jane Austen’s World July 21, 2009 https://janeaustensworld.com/2009/07/21/dental-hygiene-in-the-regency-period/

Bairsto, Rachel “Was Jane Austen a toothbrusher? Oral health and hygiene in the Regency period,” BDA British Dental Association November 4, 2019 https://bda.org/news-centre/blog/was-jane-austen-a-toothbrusher-oral-health-and-hygiene-in-the-regency-period

Lathan, Sharon “Regency Era Personal Hygiene,” Sharon Lathan, Updated October 19, 2022 https://sharonlathanauthor.com/regency-era-personal-hygiene/

Vic “Regency Medicine: Dentistry,” Jane Austen’s World, August 11, 2011 Regency Medicine: Dentistry | Jane Austen’s World (janeaustensworld.com)

Firouzian, Michael Dr. “Got a Toothache? …See the Blacksmith!,” Dr. Mikes

Whole-Body Dentistry Blog, July 7, 2020, https://www.columbuscosmeticdental.com/blog/got-toothache-see-blacksmith/

Elliot, Jane “When blacksmiths were dentists,” July 17, 2010
When blacksmiths were dentists – BBC News

Kerley, Paul “The dentures made from the teeth of dead soldiers at Waterloo,” June 16, 2015 The dentures made from the teeth of dead soldiers at Waterloo – BBC News

12 responses to “If Regency-era Dentists Did Not Recommend Brushing Twice a Day, They Should Have!”

  1. Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh Avatar

    I can’t ‘like’ this but I always learn something from Kimbelle. Even if it’s something rather gruesome!!!

  2. kimbelle1 Avatar

    I agree, Alice, it wasn’t the most pleasant of subjects, but I appreciate that you took the time to read it and comment. It does, however, make me ever so grateful that we have our modern ways, if in this one respect!

    1. Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh Avatar

      With you all the way. It also makes the comments in Austen on teeth (“Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way” etc.) make sense. These days we might not admire someone’s complexion – see Jane Fairfax – but are unlikely to mention their teeth!!

      1. kimbelle1 Avatar

        I will say that this comment often flits through the mind when crossing paths with someone who hasn’t taken care of their teeth. But it is often I hear from fellow readers of JAFF that they wished they had lived during that era and I always am stopped just shy of full agreement…this being the why of my reluctance, so I thought I’d share and maybe make someone else a bit happier with being just where they are today~

      2. Laura Avatar

        This article was quite interesting. I work at a dental office and I was cringing reading how stuff was done back then. Thank goodness for x-rays and modern instruments to properly pull teeth. What a nightmare that would have been back then! Thanks for the info!

  3. Glynis Avatar

    I was going to say thank you very much for posting this today of all days as I had a dental appointment later, however they have just called to reschedule it as my dentist is poorly. I really don’t like going but at least my life and health isn’t at risk! I do seem to have quite a high pain tolerance but I doubt that would withstand someone yanking my teeth out with no relief.

  4. kimbelle1 Avatar

    Glynis, it seems we are on the same bi-yearly cleaning schedule as mine was yesterday, and as they used the water pick and gently cleaned the bit of tarter the electric toothbrush didn’t catch, I have to say that after researching this, I was pretty happy with the visit! I hope yours goes as well~

  5. Regina Jeffers Avatar

    My semi-annual dentist appointment is on Monday. Perhaps I will print out a copy for the dentist.

    1. kimbelle1 Avatar

      Mine got a good laugh! She did promise I wouldn’t go home with someone/something else’s teeth, so I have to admit I felt it was, overall, a successful visit~

  6. kimbelle1 Avatar

    Laura, thank you for taking the time to read it and for sharing with us the relief it is to be able to work with the tools and options we have today, for it surely would’ve been a nightmare to get a tooth extracted in the Regency era, and to need it replaced was even a grimmer prospect! Stay safe~

  7. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Ooh! I don’t think I would like the blacksmith yanking my teeth out! Ouch! I don’t think I would want the teeth of someone dead either! I would try to make some money quick!lol

    1. kimbelle1 Avatar

      Cindie, I cannot agree with you more, and I’m uncertain if it would be worse or better to have a tooth replaced by one from an animal! But it did remind me there are benefits to all eras, this one is decidedly in our favor. Thank you for stopping by and reading my post today~

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