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False teeth and bone toothbrush handles | Creepy collection - False teeth | Birmingham City Council

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Image showing false teeth and bone toothbrush handles

False teeth and bone toothbrush handles

For thousands of years, dental health has been a concern. In fact, people used to believe that dental pain, and rotting teeth was caused by a creature called a ‘ToothWorm’, eating away at the tooth pulp and gum tissue. The oldest known reference to the toothworm comes from a Babylonian tablet from about 7000 years ago. The idea spread to China, Indian and Egypt over the following centuries. It even occurs in the writing of Roman Emporer Claudius’ court physician in the first century A.D. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the real reason for dental caries was discovered!

People tried to prevent the ‘tooth worm’ from visiting by keeping their teeth clean. In some cultures, they would chew on one end of a stick until the fibres of the wood formed a brush which they then used to clean their teeth. Or they would use strips of linen, bird feathers, animal bones, and porcupine quills. None of these methods were as effective as the Chinese designed toothbrush – direct ancestor of the modern toothbrush, boar bristles on a bamboo stick. From 619, Chinese dentists would pluck the hairs off pigs and paste them on bamboo sticks or animal bones. It was William Addis who introduced the Chinese way of brushing to England in the 1780s.

The idea of the bristle bone tooth brush came to William Addis whilst he was in prison. Addis took a bone left behind from his dinner and bristles that he borrowed from a guard and combined them to make a tool to clean his teeth. It was a far better alternative to a dirty cloth with soot and salt rubbed on the teeth. After his release, William Addis became the first person to mass produce modern toothbrushes. The Addis version of the toothbrush used cow tail hair drilled and tied on to cow bones. It was a success, and this design has been developed and improved ever since.

Some people were not so lucky and did not avoid the ToothWorm. They required false teeth. The Etruscans of Northern Italy produced some of the earliest dentures discovered. They made false teeth from human or animal teeth held together with gold bands.

Early European dentures from the 15th century were made of carved bone or ivory. Often human teeth were used - either from the recently deceased or from poor people who sold their teeth for money. These dentures were not comfortable and were attached to any remaining teeth by threads of silk or metal. Wealthy people had false teeth made of mother of pearl, silver or gold. Keeping the false teeth in the mouth became difficult as the number of real teeth decreased and those that had full dentures had to remove them to eat.

It is only relatively recently that false teeth have been made from rubber and plastics, and have been designed to fit comfortably in the mouth and feel and function as much like a person’s real teeth as possible.