When George Washington became president on April 30, 1789, he only had one tooth in his head, a single premolar poking up from his gums. A combination of bad genes and even worse 18th century dentistry meant that the man who first led the nation suffered from terrible teeth. But a toothless grin isn't very Presidential, and so Washington wore dentures. Somewhere along the line, the famous myth that Washington wore wooden dentures took root.
But that myth, John Smith, Jr., writes in a story for the Journal of the American Revolution, is just that. “George Washington never had wooden teeth, nor did anybody of his time. It would have been kind of dumb to make teeth out of wood when better materials were available.” says Smith:
Washington’s dentures over the course of his lifetime used materials like human teeth along with bone and ivory from hippopotamus, or “sea horse” as it was called in its day. Ivory from walrus and elephant may also have been used, along with lead, gold metal wire and springs, and brass screws.
So where did the wooden tooth myth come from? According to Smith:
It’s hard to say...but historians and forensic dentists possibly know how it got started. Ivory and bone both have hairline fractures in them, which normally can’t be seen. With Washington’s fondness for Madeira wine, a very dark wine, over time the darkness of the wine started to darken the false teeth of the dentures. Then the thin fractures in the bone started to darken even more than the rest of the tooth, making the lines look like the grain in a piece of wood “that misled later observers.”
George Washington's historically terrible chompers meant that he spent a fair bit of time fussing over teeth—and not only his own. According to Mount Vernon, the historical site of Washington's Virginia home, Washington had at one point bought 9 teeth from African-Americans:
It’s not clear if Washington intend to use these teeth as implants or within a new set of dentures or if he employed the teeth at all. While this transaction might seem morbid to a modern audience, purchasing human teeth was a fairly common practice in the 18th century for affluent individuals.