"False Teeth for the Masses": Artificial Technologies, Prostheses and Commodities in Britain, 1848 - 1948

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of History


"Artificial teeth and dentures have long been important aids for the toothless. Disguising poor oral health and enhancing personal appearance and mastication, expensive eighteenth-century dentures made from hippopotamus ivory and gold held together with complex spring mechanisms were the preserve of the elite. But from the mid-nineteenth century, dentures became "false teeth for the masses" (Woodforde 1968, 51). Made from new, cheaper and easier to work materials, including vulcanised rubber and porcelain, false teeth increasingly became popular consumer items. Enabled by the increasing use of anaesthesia and the professionalization of dentistry, the number of companies producing false teeth rapidly expanded and a huge variety of artificial teeth and dentures became available, a market that eventually came to be dominated by the standardised sets made available through the NHS from 1948. This project will examine the transformation in the consumption and use of artificial teeth and dentures in Britain between 1848 and 1948, guided by five broad questions:

1. What were the respective roles of manufacturers, dentists (professional and non-professional), retailers and the health and beauty industry in shaping this transformation?
2. What were the main design features of artificial teeth and dentures during this period, and how and why did they appeal to patients/users/consumers?
3. What was the relationship between supply and demand for these technologies?
4. How did social conventions and variables (age, class, gender, geography etc.) affect patient/user/consumer choice for artificial teeth?
5. How might research into artificial teeth be communicated to public audiences?

This study has important implications for expanding historical scholarship on health, prostheses and consumer culture. It is a valuable reminder that artificial teeth were not solely the preserve of professional dentists, but were also an important part of the commercial sphere. Indeed, artificial teeth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took on multiple meanings in the material culture of everyday life. As medical/dental technologies, prosthetic devices and commodities, artificial teeth began to gain mass appeal along with products such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, particularly as personal hygiene gained new professional and popular significance following the emergence of bacteriological science. One's teeth became an important indicator of quality of life. Bad teeth (whether natural or false) came to signify laziness, ugliness and an inability to participate in society with implications for employment and family life. This study is therefore important because it focuses on the period when teeth developed these multiple meanings. As artefacts now in the Science Museum, nineteenth- and twentieth-century artificial teeth have become important material evidence for tracing these meanings. The changing cultural meanings of artificial teeth and dentures since the mid-twentieth century, following the oral health improvements that meant fewer people lost their natural teeth and the rise of cosmetic dentistry, veneers and the 'American smile', means that artificial teeth collections of the nineteenth and twentieth century carry particular historical significance. The topic is highly relevant for public audiences today, allowing them to explore the how the health of our teeth in the past impacts on our lives today.


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