Collections Corner: Waterloo Teeth

Have you ever thought about where dentures come from? Archaeologists have found evidence of denture use dating back to 700 BCE and there have been many manifestations since, but their purpose has never really changed. Dentures were, and still are, used to replace teeth for both functional and aesthetic purposes. Early dentures were carved out of bone or ivory but since these materials are not covered with enamel, they react with the saliva in the mouth and decay, causing an unpleasant taste and odour. Porcelain dentures were introduced during the mid to late 1700s and didn’t rot, but they were unconvincing as natural teeth because of their stark white colour.

Upper denture with a carved ivory base and human teeth, 1850-1870. Accession #010020428.

The next twist in the denture adventure is a little gruesome. When manufacturing dentures, it was found that nothing could mimic the look of human teeth quite like…human teeth! The best dentures available in Europe before the late 19th century had a carved base and molars of ivory with real human incisors and cuspids. Now where, you may ask did all those teeth come from? Most commonly, grave robbers procured teeth illegally.  Since they were often taken from those who had passed away from old age or disease, there was a greater chance that the teeth were already in some stage of decay and not very desirable.

Fast forward to 1815 when we find Napoleon taking on the combined forces of the Seventh Coalition at the battle of Waterloo—which is of course where the term Waterloo Teeth got its start. Once the battle was over, there were a large number of deceased: otherwise healthy young men who had succumbed to their injuries and, in the eyes of scavengers, no longer required their teeth. The teeth were pilfered and shipped away to dentists who placed them into the carved ivory bases and attached large price tags, making these dentures available only to the very wealthy.

String of human teeth on a wire, 1810-1870. Accession #010020420 a-q

Waterloo Teeth were most popular in the early nineteenth century, but teeth from soldiers of the American Civil War appeared in catalogues in the late 1860s. The demand for human teeth decreased when new technologies and techniques were invented to make artificial teeth appear more realistic. With dental technology what it is today, dentures can look exactly like real teeth, making Waterloo Teeth a thing of the past.

Meaghan Eckersley
Collections Intern

The Museum gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Government of Ontario through the Programs and Services Branch of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture for the project to accession of the Dr. Ralph and Mrs. Olga Crawford Canadian Dental Collection

Further reading & resources

Dentures of the Future May Be Real Teeth” Amanda Onion, ABC News.

Take a look at some examples of Waterloo Teeth on display at the Museum in the exhibit “Teeth in Time” or have a peek at the Crawford Dental Collection on our online catalogue!

Sources

www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/france/teeth.htm

British Dental association – http://www.bda.org/museum/collections/teeth-and-dentures/waterloo-teeth.aspx

Woodforde, John, “The Strange Story of False Teeth”, p. 62, 1983, St. Edmundsbury Press, Bury St. Edmunds,Suffolk

http://www.ehow.com/about_4626520_history-dentures.html

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