Just like the stories around the famous cherry tree, the legends about George Washington’s famous wooden teeth have to be taken with the proverbial “grain of salt”. Though it seems that false teeth could have once been made of wood prior to the advent of modern dental methods and materials, the reality is that George Washington did not wear wooden teeth…ever.
He had a long history of dental issues, and suffered through ill-fitting dentures for many years before he finally found a dentist capable of meeting his needs. Things were so bad, in fact, that he worked with nine different dentists before one was able to make a set of dentures that were comfortable enough to wear.
Who made them? New York dentist, John Greenwood, was able to succeed where so many of his peers had failed. He was such a good match for Washington that he eventually made four complete sets of dentures for the first President of the United States.
So, what were they made of? At the time, most false teeth were carved from hippopotamus and elephant ivory. They were were set in gold and used springs to hold the upper and lower plates together. Those made for George Washington were slightly different. They were carved from hippopotamus ivory and had human teeth riveted into the bone to give them an even more realistic appearance.
Today, we can enjoy false teeth, or dentures, that are so cunningly crafted that we cannot tell if they are real or not. After the era of bone and ivory dentures came the era of porcelain dentures. This is not the preferred material, however, because it does not “give” and it causes a lot of wear on opposing teeth.
For example, those dentures made of durable ivory, bone, or porcelain could withstand the pressures of chewing, but they put a tremendous strain on the gums and jaw beneath them. This really altered the shape of the mouth and ensured that even a great set of false teeth would eventually need to be replaced frequently because the soft tissue and underlying bone had been compressed by the vibration and resistance of the materials.
Today, we have special acrylic or plastic that can be worn without all of the usually dilemmas. For example, acrylic false teeth will absorb more vibrations and pressure rather than passing it all on to the gums and underlying bone. They are much easier to repair if broken or stained, and will tend to last a substantially longer period of time than other materials.