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Weird History: Dead Men's Teeth

If you know one thing about horror writers, it's that we all have this weird, inexplicable fascination with human teeth. You'd be hard-pressed to find a horror writer—especially a horror poet—who has not at one time or another utilized toothy imagery. So, for this week's history lesson, we're going to talk about every horror writer's favorite subject.

*throws tiny, tooth-shaped confetti*

Did you know that dentures used to be constructed from real human teeth? Specifically, teeth taken from dead men. It makes sense. What looks more realistic than the genuine article, right?

"Everyone was dabbling in dentistry" during the 18th century explains London's curator of British Dental Association's museum, Rachel Bairsto, to the BBC. Rising sugar consumption and acidic teeth whitening efforts among the rich were creating a demand for false teeth. Most dentures of the time had an ivory base with either ivory teeth or human teeth affixed to it.

"In the 1780s, an ivory denture with human teeth could cost over £100," Bairsto tells the BBC. That comes to about £28,935.03 (or $35,779.32) in 2023. "Without human teeth it was cheaper, but still financially out of reach for most people."

Of course, teeth aren't like vegetables. You can't play them and wait. So, denture makers put advertisements in periodicals requesting human teeth be sent in. Alas, people weren't lining up to offer the teeth right out of their own mouths. So, attention turned to a more grim outlet: deceased soldiers from the battle of Waterloo.

Fought between the French and the British, the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815 on land that now makes up Belgium. According to Brown University, Waterloo saw over 48,000 casualties between both sides. A human skull has up to 32 teeth. Even accounting for poor dental hygiene at the time, that would have been about a million teeth left on the battlefield. Scavengers and looters saw an opportunity here and they took it, collecting teeth during the ten days it took for the bodies to be buried or cremated.

Mental Floss states that today, the teeth plundered from the battle are known as "Waterloo Teeth". These teeth were pulled, sorted, and boiled so that they could be placed in dentures and worn by those who could afford them.

Alas, real teeth eventually went out of fashion. Now, the teeth you see in dentures are constructed from porcelain or resin acrylic, which is a lightweight and less expensive alternative. That means no more dead mens' teeth, which I think we can all agree is probably for the best.

To close things out, we're going to share a link to one of Emily Dickinson's teeth poems (yes, she has more than one). This one is known as "This World is not Conclusion (373)" and while we don't have the rights to share the whole poem, you can find it here.

[Image Credit: photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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1 Comment

Jun 03, 2023

I love how fascinating these weird history facts are. The Emily Dickinson poem adds to the weirdness of these facts. I guess that's why they are called "Weird History."

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