Toothpick from Regency Period (c) BDA Museum
News that a Jane Austen letter to her sister is up for sale, which includes a grisly description of a visit to the dentist, is a reminder of the poor state of oral health in the Regency period and what we can learn about people's oral hygiene routines, or lack thereof, and how far we have come today in promoting good oral health.
Jane Austen made quite a few references to dentistry in her letters, and also in her novels, which is unsurprising, when you consider what dentistry was like in the Regency period.
Set of dentures from the Regency Period (c) BDA Museum
All in all, oral health was poor - Jane Austen's mother at the age of 42 was missing her front teeth. If you could afford it, then a set of dentures was available to restore your smile. These were usually made of hippo or walrus ivory, so were very expensive, and often stank and rotted in your mouth (regular cleaning wasn't usually advocated), hence the use of fans to waft the stench away – lovely!
Sugar consumption was on the rise, so the wealthier of society were certainly consuming a fair amount through a diet of sweet foods and their availability in coffee houses and this was impacting on their oral health.
As far as I know, Jane Austen makes no reference to any oral hygiene products in any letters or novels and we haven't heard of any evidence of the mention of oral hygiene in the Museum at her house in Chawton.
Toothbrushes and toothpastes were available at that point, but only for the wealthy – it's unclear whether the Austen family would have been able to afford a toothbrush or if they would have been brushing their teeth.
Jane Austin also mentions toothpicks but doesn't seem to be much of a fan of these…
'He was giving orders for a toothpick-case for himself, and till its size, shape, and ornaments were determined, all of which, after examining and debating for a quarter of an hour over every toothpick-case in the shop, were finally arranged by his own inventive fancy…' Sense and Sensibility, 1811
The dentist she makes reference to in her letter is also unclear as it's difficult to reconcile which Spence he is.
We know of many references to Spences, and indeed there was likely a Spence dental dynasty! There was a George Spence, dentist to George III of 17 Old Bond Street or Spence & Son of 1 Arlington Street, London, and also a James Spence, whose sons were Thomas and George, both dentists to George III from c. 1794 to 1815 (George) and 1820 (Thomas).
James Spence was also a leading dentist of his day. He worked closely with John Hunter, and from 1763, John Hunter spent five years providing advice to Spence using his anatomical knowledge and surgical experience. In 1766 Spence was appointed 'operator for the teeth' to George III.
Filing set from the Regency Period (c) BDA Museum
There is a reference to filing the teeth in Jane Austen's letter, which highlights the diversity of practice, because of the lack of any scientific understanding of the causes of decay.
Filing was used historically to correct uneven teeth. Some dentists recommended filing to prevent caries and others said it made more space to trap food! Over-zealous filing could make the teeth more sensitive and generally was not great for your oral health.
Luckily, fillings were not commonly practised as they were expensive and often didn't last long, making extraction the only option. But with no anaesthetic and post-operative bleeding and infection likely (and no antibiotics to treat them!), it could be a painful and potentially life-threatening procedure.
Tooth key from Regency Period (c) BDA Museum
Dentists used something called a 'dental key' to extract teeth, a rather fearsome looking instrument!
Our latest exhibition at the Museum takes a look at 200 years of the history of the toothbrush, and our relationship with it, as well as the changing fortunes of our oral health – all our exhibitions are free, take a look at our opening times on our website.
Rachel Bairsto, BDA Museum Head
The BDA Museum
has one of the largest collections of dental heritage in the UK. Spanning the 17th century to the present day, highlights of the collection include dental chairs, drills, oral hygiene products, and the infamous 'Waterloo' teeth. Pop in and see for yourself