Wedding Teeth

I heard of this story from an episode of QI (Series J, Episode "Joints").

On the show, Stephen Fry asked the panel if they knew why, in the Victorian era, Glaswegian women lost all their teeth on their wedding night. This, of course, set everyone up to have filthy minds or make jokes about drunken domestic violence, but the real reason was actually very practical.

Dental upkeep was very expensive, especially in an era when (amongst the lower classes in particular) there were no bi-yearly trips to the dentist for general upkeep, no dental floss, no mouthwash, and no toothpaste (if you could afford to clean your teeth with anything but water, it was probably a new "tooth-powder" which, depending on what was in it, sometimes did more harm than good). On top of that, sweeteners and sugar were being used more frequently and becoming more widely available for people.

Therefore, when a woman got married, her "present" was to have all her teeth pulled and a set of dentures made up to help her and her husband save on the eventual cost of dental work later. Even if she had a perfect set of teeth at the time of her marriage. It was taken as given that your teeth would rot; there was no escaping it.

This practice lasted an embarrassingly long time, and not just in Glasgow–it happened everywhere (although I think the matrimonial dentures were a Glasgow tradition). In the 1960s, my grandmother got a cavity on a tooth that was visible when she smiled and talked. My grandfather told her that they couldn't afford for her to get a crown, so she could either have it pulled and have a visibly missing tooth OR she could have all her teeth pulled and get some dentures. She got the dentures. She was in her mid-to-late twenties.

Back to the Victorians:

Back then they made dentures out of a variety of materials including wood, porcelain, animal bone, ivory, hardened rubbery and even gold. Most typically, however, they were made out of real human teeth. For any of you who have read/watched Les Miserables, you know that Fantine sells her teeth in order to raise money for Cosette's care, and this is precisely why. Poor people could also sell the teeth from their dead relatives before they were buried, and grave robbers could steal them from corpses they dug up.

One of the biggest mass corpse tooth-collections (wow, there's a normal sentence) was at the Battle of Waterloo, where thousands upon thousands of young, healthy men died young. Their teeth were largely still perfect, so their corpses were scavenged and their teeth provided a whole generation of people with dentures. Those dentures were widely referred to as "Waterloo Teeth".

As someone who lives in Glasgow and is getting married in the relatively near future, if anyone comes near me with pliers at the wedding I am going to go absolutely goddamned bananas.

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One Response to Wedding Teeth

  1. linda_lupos says:

    … as someone who’s had bad teeth all her life, has braces twices, had orthognatic surgery a year and a half ago (they basically broke my upper and lower jaw and pieces them together the right way) and has about four dental experts she visits regularly…

    this just CREEPED ME THE HELL OUT. O_O Aaarrggh.


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