Oral hygiene is so much a part of most people’s lives today that we rarely give a thought to what we’re cleaning our teeth with. Advertisements for tooth powder can be found from the early eighteenth century, although with extravagant claims about instant whitening, curing scurvy and ‘fastening’ the teeth, so they read like ads for quack medicine. Rudimentary toothbrushes were also available – The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown, Serious and Comical, in Prose and Verse from 1715 details the contents of the chamber of ‘a famous Miss of the Town':
The Furniture of the Room was every Way answerable to the Entertainment; for, let me see – there stood that necessary Utensil, call’d a Piss-pot, brim-full in the Chimney; a batter’d Band-box, upon a broken-back’d Chair; the Skeleton of a Fan, with a Tooth-brush, a Powder-puff, and a Box of Pomatum in the Closet…
The Johnson family recipe book (Wellcome Library, MS.3082) contains three recipes for tooth powder, the last one also ‘to cure the scurvey & whiten the teeth':
Two ounces of Cream of Tartar one ounce of Myrrh, one ounce of Dragons Blood one ounce of Bole Armoniac Beat all these to a fine Powder mix them together and sift them through a fine sieve. Instead of using this in Powder I mix Honey of Roses with it.
One oz of peruvian Bark, One oz of Bole Armoniac, One oz of powdered Cinnamon, One Dram of Gum Myrrh
Take Merr [myrrh] Mastick Dragons Blood Bole armoniac of eatch 2 peneworth sinement [cinnamon] 1 peneworth burne gum alom & mix as mutch as will lye on a shiling a mongs these pouders & put in 12 dropp of sperett of Vittrell [spirit of vitriol] & if you will add one ounce of pouder of Cuttle Bone
To dissect some of those ingredients, cream of tartar, or potassium bitartrate, is used in cooking, but also as a stain remover. Dragon’s blood is a plant resin, used medicinally to promote healing. Myrrh gum is another resin, used in perfumes but also possessing antiseptic properties. Mastic was also a resin, apparently used in harems as a breath freshener and tooth whitener! Bole armoniac is a red clay containing iron oxide, used as an astringent. Peruvian bark, otherwise known as Jesuit’s bark, is the bark of the chinchona plant, a source of quinine, although I’m not sure what it’s doing in tooth powder. Alum is a chemical salt, the most common form of which is potassium aluminium sulphate, used by herbalists today in treating gum disease; burnt alum has been heated and powdered. Cinnamon would have improved the flavour, but is also antiseptic and is still used in some modern toothpastes. Spirit of vitriol, rather alarmingly, is an old term for sulphuric acid. Cuttlebone powder, nowadays fed to caged birds as a source of calcium, was employed as a polishing agent.
In the Boyle family recipe book (Wellcome Library, MS.1340) we also find a recipe ‘To Wash the Teeth to Make them White':
Take Bole Armeniac and Mastick both in powder, of Each as much as will lye upon a Groat, mingle them well with eight spoonfulls of Plantane Water, and with a Rag dipped therein Wash your Teeth two or three times a day.
Plantain water was a distilled herbal water often used to carry other ingredients in remedies, but also supposed to reduce swelling and heal wounds. Not that washing your teeth with a rag sounds either appetising or effective.
The same recipe book includes the following ways of dealing with toothache, an ever-present problem before modern dentistry and in an age without effective pain relief:
Take the Powder of Red Corral and Put it into the hollow of the Tooth and it will Ease or fall out.
A Little Gun powder applyed in a linnen Cloth Easeth the Toothach
Take the leaves of Comfrey and a little Rue between the teeth and hold down your head that the Rheum may run out. It helps the Toothach.
Take Mithridate and only lay it to the place grieved and it will presently Ease the pain. if the Tooth be hollow lay it with Lint to the place.
Take a little Balm and a little Basil Rub them both in the Palm of your hand to a Juice and Put the same into the Ear on the aching Side and It will drive away the pain immediately.
Put three drops of the Juice of Rue into the Ear on that side the Tooth achs, lying on the contrary side, let it remain there one or two hours and you shall not only be Eased of the pain but never be troubled with it more.
Take the leaves of Clary growing in the middle of the plant, and pound them and put them pounded into a linnen Cloth and Squeeze one drop of the Juice into the hole of the Ear that the drop may go down and in a little while the Pain of the tooth will away.
I know you can sometimes get toothache as a result of an ear infection, but I’d love to know if there’s any medical rationale for treating toothache via the ear canal!