By Kaleena Fraga
(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)
Today is George Washington’s 286th birthday. Name a fact–any fact about him. First president? Revolutionary War general? Something about a cherry tree? Wooden teeth?
Of the many myths surrounding Washington, the one about his teeth is among the most popular. In reality, Washington never had wooden teeth. But he did have dental problems, lots of them, requiring the use of dentures for a good chunk of his adult life. Rather than wooden teeth, however, as Ron Chernow writes in his Washington biography, Washington: A Life, most of the teeth in his dentures were likely made from walrus or elephant ivory. Chernow postulates that the myth arose from the “gradual staining of hairline fractures in the ivory that made it resemble a wood grain.” Washington also used several of his own pulled teeth in his dentures, and there’s documentation of his purchase of teeth from slaves (a grotesque, but common practice in the 18th century).
Washington found his dental problems highly embarrassing. They made his lips stick out, and made it hard for him to speak. The fake teeth often became discolored, once so much that Washington sent them to his dentist, John Greenwood for repair. Greenwood noted that they had turned black–possibly because the president drank so much port wine. That Washington felt so self-conscious about his teeth may explain his solemn look in most of his portraits.
Washington’s dental ordeals sound terrible–both painful and embarrassing, especially for someone who, as president and as a beloved public figure, was expected to entertain guests and speak publicly. His wife, Martha, also suffered from dental problems and both of them eventually wore dentures. Martha encouraged her grandchildren to invest in toothbrushes and cleansing powders to avoid the turmoil that she and her husband endured over their teeth.
By the time he became president, Washington had only one natural tooth remaining. When this tooth had to be pulled, Washington gifted it to his dentist, Greenwood. Greenwood originally drilled a hole through the tooth and tied it to his watch chain. He became worried it would break, and transferred it to a locket. On the locket is inscribed: “In New York 1790, Jn Greenwood made Pres Geo Washington a whole sett of teeth. The enclosed tooth is the last one which grew in his head.”
For those curious to see Washington’s smile in person, Mount Vernon has his dentures–the only full set in existence.