An Overview of Colonial-Era Dental Care: A Look Back at Old-Fashioned Toothaches

Toothbrushes, toothpaste, and biannual visits to the dentist are some of the contemporary comforts that are frequently taken for granted when considering dental care. Turning the clock back to the colonial era in America, however, reveals that oral hygiene was very different from what is understood now. In this article, we’ll learn about the intriguing world of colonial dental care and come away with a new appreciation for modern dental hygiene.

No Toothpaste, No Hurt, Right?

Toothpaste, in its modern sense, did not exist throughout the colonial era. To clean their teeth, people would use a wide variety of concoctions they created at home. Crushed eggshells, oyster shells, and even pulverised tobacco leaves were common abrasives used in these concoctions. Just picture yourself now using tobacco as a tooth brush. Some surface stains and dirt may be scrubbed away thanks to the abrasive nature of these chemicals, but unfortunately they wouldn’t be able to prevent cavities or gum disease.

Toothbrushes: Only the Rich Can Afford Them

However, toothbrushes were not widely available in colonial America, despite their widespread use elsewhere. Those lucky enough to have access to toothbrushes were more likely to come from affluent families that could afford the imported bristle brushes. While others had to get resourceful by using dirty towels or the frayed ends of twigs to scrub their teeth. These improvised toothbrushes may have helped a little, but they certainly weren’t as good as the toothbrushes we use today.

Dental Home Remedies and Traditional Treatments

When colonists experienced dental issues or pain, they turned to a wide range of home medicines and traditional treatments. Herbal remedies like mint and parsley were commonly chewed, mustard plasters were applied to the cheeks, and even urine was used as a mouthwash (because of its purported cleansing effects). There is no denying that dental treatment has gone a long way, both in terms of efficiency and patient comfort.

Painful but Necessary Tooth Extraction 

The removal of a problematic tooth was the usual course of action when dental problems became intolerable. Early dentists, sometimes known as “tooth drawers,” typically relied on clumsy tools like pliers or forceps to remove teeth. Without the comforts of anesthesia, patients had to grit their teeth and face the agony of these extractions.

Decay and Sugar

The oral health of the colonists was also affected by their diet. Molasses, maple syrup, and honey—all forms of sugar—were widely available and consumed. Tooth decay was common due to the high-sugar diet and inadequate dental treatment, frequently resulting in extensive tooth loss. It’s hardly surprising that people of that age had so many dental problems.

The Bond Between Barbers and Dentists

Colonial America saw no need for a separate dental profession. Instead of dentists, barbers routinely performed operations like pulling teeth. This dual career path may seem unusual now, yet it was commonplace in the past. Barbers were very versatile in the medical field, as seen by their ability to do bloodletting and even small surgery.

A Peek Back in Time 

Looking back at the primitive state of dental care in the early colonies, it’s easy to see how far we’ve gone in our awareness of the need of good oral hygiene. Much of what we know and do in the field of dentistry today may be traced back to developments throughout the ages. When you go to the dentist or wash your teeth next time, think about how far the field of dentistry has come since colonial times.

We are lucky to live in an age where cutting-edge dental technology allows us to take better care of our teeth and gums, as well as our entire bodies. Taking proper care of one’s teeth and gums in the present is essential, but remembering the difficulties people in colonial times faced may serve as a powerful reminder of the need to do so.