Toothbrush c. 1795, supposedly used by Napoleon Bonaparte. This toothbrush with a silver gilt handle was made for Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) of France. The Chinese are credited with inventing the use of toothbrushes and toothpastes, although the ancient Egyptians used branches with frayed ends to clean their teeth. In the West, the use of toothbrushes began to be promoted by French dentists in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It belonged to the collection of Henry Wellcome.Science Museum London. Source
A Brief History of Teeth Care
The first tooth brush that was made with bristles and held sideways to scrape gunk off your teeth came from China in 1498. There was one in Spain and France which looked more like a paintbrush recorded in 1590. I was unable to find a source that could tell me for certain whether this design had made it to England during this same time. (Source)
During the latter part of Shakespeare’s lifetime (early 17th century) through until the 18th century, toothbrushes were–like almost all the “new” items of the day–almost exclusively luxury items. While we have records of some which were made from gold, silver, and other luxury items, these toothbrushes (teethbrushes?) were considered show off objects for flaunting one’s wealth, as opposed to anything really practical. It certainly wasn’t something people used with regularity. Though we can tell that by the 18th century one dentist (considered the Father of Modern Dentistry) Pierre Fauchard, told people that using a cloth was much preferred over the bristles made of horse hair, as bristles could damage teeth. So if his recommendation is any indication, if the bristled toothbrush was around in Shakespeare’s lifetime, its popularity as a dental hygienic item would not arrive until much later.
I was able to find that science was hot with exploration into teeth even at a microscopic level during the 17th century. Though it did happen after Shakespeare died, it’s tantalizingly close: In 1683, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Holland’s father of microbial biology, observed microscopic biofilm bacteria gathered from the scruff of teeth. Poor Dr. Leeuwenhoek, however, seems to have been a member of a signficant minority.
So Would Shakespeare have used a toothbrush? Probably not, no. They were there, but they were very much on the fringe of society type items and mainly novelties for those who did own them, instead of functional pieces of dental care.
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So what did Shakespeare use? Here are a few options:
Sugar Polishing Paste
Just like it sounds, this was a paste made from sugar that people slathered all over their teeth thinking it would clean them. Since sand remains a common ingredient in toothpastes even today, I can follow their reasoning that the granulated sugar might bring the abrasive cleansing they would want, unfortunately, the sugar also eats away at the enamel and caused severe decay.
Sugar being a super expensive item in Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was only the wealthy who had sugar paste avialable to them, resulting in the curious phenomenon that the poorer of England actually had better teeth. Modern historians attribute this fact to the lack of sugar in the diet of the poorer classes. (Source)
This obsession with sugar for Tudor aristocracy lead to a teeth killing combination of poor diet and horrible oral hygeine. By the time she was in her early fifties her teeth had almost all turned black and fallen out.
The Queen was such a trendsetter, however, that when her teeth did rot out of her head, that look caught on and many aristocratic girls and women started staining their own teeth with soot and anything else that would turn them black to follow the fashion set by Elizabeth. (Source)
A chewstick is what it sounds like: It is a small, pliable piece of a stick or twig from a tree or small plant that a person chews on for the purpose of cleaning their teeth. It works like some of the chewing gums we have today in that the act of chewing can clean your teeth. In China, they treated the branches with various oils like peppermint to also freshen the breath.
In England for Shakespeare’s lifetime, the exploration to India and the establishment of the East India Trading Company, brought European colonizers into contact with a particular kind of chewstick plant called Neem. It was notable to Indian farmers because during outbreaks of locust plagues, the Neem plant would survive, being left alone by the locust, indicating it repelled the insect. It became popular as a chewstick for it’s insecticidal properties, though the chemical and scientific understanding of why this plant was effective would not be fully known until the 1960s. (Source)
A fingerNasty as this may sound today, it was not uncommon during Shakespeare’s lifetime for someone to simply use their finger to clean their teeth by rubbing their finger around in their mouth to remove debris. While not fully effective, this method did at least clean on a basic level.
A sponge or clothProbably the most likely contender in my opinion for what William Shakespeare would have used to clean his own teeth (and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest oral hygiene wasn’t a primary concern for Shakespeare) but if he did clean his teeth, it was probably with a sponge or cloth. The same way you might clean your body, or wash your car, a piece of linen was used in 16-17th century England to rub off the gunk in one’s mouth to try and remove food and freshen breath. So it seems along with dirty streets, and a lack of bathing, nasty breath was also pretty commonplace during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Those are all the ways I found to clean teeth during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Do you know of more? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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That’s it for this week! I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next week!
Despite not bathing often, and having really bad teeth care, people in Shakespeare’s lifetime did have soap–mostly for cleaning cloths or non-body washing items. Do you want to learn more about soap in Shakespeare’s lifetime? Check out this guide:
MAKE YOUR OWN TUDOR SOAP BALLS
Try out a piece of Shakespeare’s history for yourself! You can make your very own Tudor soap balls, which would have been used along with those batyldores we mentioned in today’s episode for cleaning your linens in the 16th century. You can download a recipe for making your own when you sign up to our email updates about That Shakespeare Life.
In a scene in Shakespeare In Love, the very wealthy role played by Gwyneth Paltrow uses a brush to clean her teeth. So, apparently historically incorrect! Ive always wondered!
I wondered, too! In the filmmakers defense, her having a toothbrush was historically accurate in the technical sense. They did exist (and, actually, being wooden with hair bristles, was the version that had been invented in prison). However, it was a stretch for her to use one as if it was so “normal” and “everyday” (or in the same manner as someone who had modern teeth care regimens). Toothbrushes were available, and what you might call rudimentary oral care also existed, but the overall opinion of the toothbrush was not one of wide acceptance. There were several dentists who wrote about it being bad to brush your teeth (too abrasive), and promoted instead the use of a cloth or even your fingers to clean your teeth. It was not common, nor widespread, to use a toothbrush at all, much less regularly. Wealthy people could have had them, and as with all things you buy for the novelty of it, many were even gilded (like Napoleon’s toothbrush, for example) but as I understand it so far as the research I’ve done to this point, ownership of a toothbrush would have been more for the novelty of the item rather than hygiene. I do not think anyone followed the “brush and floss twice daily” in the way we think of toothbrushes today.