Christophe Wilhelm Hufeland

In 1826 ‘The Family Oracle of Health’ reported on the rapid spread of tooth decay throughout the nation over the previous 25 years. A number of reasons for this were put forward. One was the increased consumption of sugar from the West Indies - although this was disputed by some who argued that the West Indians who worked on the plantations and ate considerable quantities of sugar themselves, seemed to be remarkably untroubled by bad teeth. Another explanation, advanced by the German physician Christophe Wilhelm Hufeland, was that consuming hot and cold foods or drinks immediately after each other caused invisible cracks in the tooth enamel to open up and allow decay to enter. Surprisingly that argument still had its supporters into the late 1930’s.

(Incidentally Hufeland 1762-1836 was the inventor of the term ‘macrobiotic’ and served as Physician Royal to the King of Prussia and was also personal physician to such German notables as Goethe and Schiller.)

A more enlightened group at the time suggested that one reason for dental decay was acid formed from food trapped between the teeth. To counter these effects it was recommended that teeth be regularly brushed or cleaned using tooth picks - although children were advised against this as it might damage their tooth enamel. A publication of the time, Peptic Precepts, took up the case for tooth brushing with a vengeance…

The TEETH should be cleaned after every meal with a ‘TOOTH PRESERVER’, (i.e a very soft brush) and then rinsed with tepid water - never neglect this at night; nothing destroys the Teeth so fast as suffering food to stick between them - those who observe this rule will seldom have any occasion for Dentifrices - Essences of Ivory - Indurating Liquid Enamels, etc. But it is the rage just now with some Dentists, to recommend Brushes so hard, that they fetch Blood like a Lancet wherever they touch; - instead of ‘Teeth Preservers’ these should rather be termed ‘Gum Bleeders.’

Marshmallow plant

The ‘Family Oracle of Health’ was against all this. In 1824 it scornfully dismissed brushing as a waste of time. “Many savage tribes”, it argued, “have perfect teeth but do not know any form of brush!” It suggested that any souls determined to brush their teeth should use the old-fashioned ‘Lady Morgan’s Toothbrush’, made by pounding the root of the marsh-mallow plant (Althaea officinalis) until it became a bunch of soft fibres. It failed to mention that the marsh mallow also has “a powerful laxative effect for the easing of colonic blockages and the increase of urinary flow” - which is probably not what you want to be thinking about as you brush your teeth.

It is scarcely surprising that the 19th century saw such deterioration in the state of the nation’s teeth. As the Industrial Revolution took hold and more and more people moved off the land into cities the general diet declined in quality, especially in bone forming elements. Cheap, mineral-poor white flour, watered down milk - or in many cases, no milk at all and few fresh vegetables added to the problem. Young children were particularly at risk as busy mothers abandoned breast-feeding in favour of condensed milk substitutes that had very low nutrient value.

In his 1872 book “The Teeth and how to save them” L.P Meredith wrote..

‘Thousands of sickly parents are begetting sickly children with sickly teeth, and instead of feeding them with such food as is calculated to counterbalance the inherited predisposition, are doing just the opposite.’

By the end of the 19th century the state of the nation’s teeth was appalling. Over 40% of the recruits presenting themselves in 1899 for military service in the South African War had to be rejected because of bad teeth. Simply put they were not able to chew the army food.

false teeth

One group did benefit from this ‘gap’ in the market - the manufacturers of false teeth, or “Patent Masticators” as they were called. One company, Messrs Palmer and Cutler of St. James Street in London guaranteed customers that with their false teeth they would be able to ‘Masticate, Denticate, Chump, Grind and Swallow with the Best.’

Now thanks to the National Health Service, better diets, painless dental surgery and a general awareness of the value of dental care and a decent set of teeth the state of the nation’s choppers have improved no end…but we still should heed Pam Ayres good advice…


My Mother, she told me no end, “If you got a tooth, you got a friend” I was young then, and careless, My toothbrush was hairless, I never had much time to spend.

Oh I showed them the toothpaste all right, I flashed it about late at night, But up-and-down brushin’ And pokin’ and fussin’ Didn’t seem worth the time… I could bite!

If I’d known I was paving the way, To cavities, caps and decay, The murder of fiIlin’s Injections and drillin’s I’d have thrown all me sherbet away.

So I lay in the old dentist’s chair, And I gaze up his nose in despair, And his drill it do whine, In these molars of mine, “Two amalgum,” he’ll say, “for in there.”

How I laughed at my Mother’s false teeth, As they foamed in the waters beneath, But now comes the reckonin’ It’s me they are beckonin’ Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth.


– from Martyn Day