Do It Yourself: Tooth powder

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!



Do It Yourself: Vinegar

For the latest in this series of recipes for products we normally wouldn’t make today, I thought I’d take a look at vinegar. A versatile liquid, vinegar was used for preserving, in medicines and for cleaning, as well as for disguising smells and preventing fainting. Here is a selection of simpler recipes, although some of them would have taken a long time to make.

To make Excellent Venigar:

Take 40 pds of Maligo [Malaga] raisins stalks & all, washing them thorow a haire cive [through a hair seive], so putt them in a litle barrell that you intend to keep it in, & putt to them 16 gallons of spring water, fasten a cloth on the bung-hole, with some clay to keep out the dust, lay a tile also upon it, sett the vessell in your garden in the Sun in May, so lett it stand 3 months, every 3 weekes looking to it, and if it have soaked the water up, fill it up again; and when it is sharp enough, bung it up. the first month it is good wine, this venigar will keepe a good while, the better for being old, & it is very cheap. (Wellcome Library, MS.4054)

To make Water Vinegar:

To every pound of coarse Sugar, 1 Gallon of Water, boil it an hour, skimming it continually, when cool put in a toast spread with yeast, & work it 48 hours, then tun it [put it in a cask], & set it in the sun & when sour draw it off into Bottles. (Wellcome Library, MS.144)

To Make Vinegar:

Take strong Ale brewed in March, put it in a new and strong vessel, and set it in the Sun where it hath most force, cover the bung hole with a Tile and so let it stand till Damask Roses and Elder Flowers blow, then take a peck of Each and heat them a little till they be moist, so put them hot into the vessel and cover it again with the Tile and let it stand till the heat of the Sun be over, then stop it close and remove it into your Cellar. (Wellcome Library, MS.1340)