Tooth Care in the Time of Shakespeare: Amazing Facts from Our Salisbury Dentist

Many people dread going to the dentist—but if they lived in the 1500s and 1600s, they would fear it even more. Back in Shakespearean times, dental “care” was often more harmful than the diseases it sought to cure—which is why many people opted to lose their teeth altogether rather than go in for “treatment.” In today’s post, our Salisbury dentist shares some incredible facts about Elizabethan-era dentistry, and the monumental strides we have made in oral health care in the last 400 years.

Setting the Stage: Dental Care in the 1500s

In the 1500’s and 1600’s, dental hygiene, like bathing, was a rare luxury undertaken once or twice a year. The link between oral bacteria and tooth decay wasn’t understood, and toothbrushes, invented around this time in China, hadn’t spread to Europe. Poor hygiene and inadequate medical knowledge meant that disease ran rampant, and the average male life expectancy was 47. Shakespeare himself died at the ripe old age of 52.

People Believed in “Toothworms”

For thousands of years, people believed that tooth decay was caused by a worm residing inside the teeth. The “worm” explanation persisted until the beginning of the 18th century, when Pierre Fauchard, often credited as “the Father of dentistry”, disproved it using microscopic evidence. The worm belief was likely founded on the fact that, when removed intact, the necrotic or partially necrotic tooth pulp can have a worm-like appearance.

Teeth Were “Blackened,” Not Whitened

Today, we tend to consider a bright white smile an indication of wealth, since professional tooth whitening is more of a luxury than a life-saving treatment. But in Elizabethan times, it became fashionable to blacken the teeth with coal or other products. That’s because sugar was rare and expensive, and available only to the very rich. Therefore, having black, rotten teeth became all the rage, as it indicated that the wearer could afford the finer things in life.

Tooth “Paste” Could Contain Sand

We often warn against the risks of using harsh abrasives on teeth, like baking soda or activated charcoal. But today’s toothpastes have nothing on Elizabethan tooth “paste,” which was often a mixture containing coral fragments, pumice, sand, or finely ground stone. Technically, the solution did remove plaque from teeth…but it also sanded off the enamel, leaving the teeth even more exposed to decay.

Bad Breath Was Considered Dangerous

In our time, we often joke about “toxic” or “deadly” bad breath, but to people in the 17th century, it was genuinely believed that bad breath contained diseases, including the plague. In an effort to spare their friends and neighbors, people used mouthwashes containing water, vinegar, anise, cloves, wine, mint, and even eucalyptus. It is doubtful that vinegar or wine, both highly acidic substances, would have helped much; as for eucalyptus, it is highly toxic and likely did more harm than good.

Get Modern Oral Care from Our Salisbury Family Dentist!  

Thankfully, dentistry has come a long way since Shakespearean times. Today, we understand the importance of daily brushing and flossing, and biannual dental cleanings. If you are looking for a dentist in Salisbury NC to take care of your smile, feel free to schedule an appointment with us today!