Five ancient practices that will make you grateful for modern dentistry

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November 12th, 2018

Dentistry has been around in some form or another for thousands of years. From embedding precious stones in teeth to brushing with hog hair, people have been (attempting to) care for and bedazzle their teeth for centuries. Many practices from the past range from bizarre to downright disgusting. Below are five ancient dental practices that will make you thankful you’re visiting the dentist in the 21st century:

Green graphic of a hog

Hog hair

Before toothbrushes, ancient peoples commonly used chew sticks to keep their mouths clean. By about 1498, the first toothbrush, made of bamboo or bone with bristles of hair from the back of hog necks, was invented in China. Eventually the toothbrush evolved to the much more sanitary nylon bristles we use today.

Urine toothpaste

Even the Romans valued a white smile – and they used human urine to achieve it. For what it’s worth, the ammonia in urine is an effective stain remover, although we prefer today’s mouthwashes and fluoride toothpastes.

(Hand-turned) Bow drills

Ever tried to make a fire like the ancients? You’ve probably used a bow drill. Imagine someone cranking a wooden handle into your tooth before applying a dental filling of beeswax.

"Donor teeth"

British surgeon John Hunter created the practice of using donor teeth to fill holes in patients’ mouths in the second half of the 1700s. Because they never suitably bonded with the patients’ gums, the donor teeth were not permanent – although they did last a few years, which for the time period was much longer than ever before. Hunter’s base principles of tooth transplant are still used in organ transplants today.

Your neighborhood bloodletting barber

Before dentistry became a specialized practice, people often saw their barber for tooth pain – who promptly extracted the offending tooth.

These hair cutters, beard trimmers, and tooth-extractors also often practiced bloodletting, which is how the red and white-striped pole became a symbol of the barbershop.

Bloodletting patients often gripped a pole to make the blood flow more freely, and to mask the bloodstains, the poles were often painted red. White gauze was wrapped around the poles to be used as bandages on the bloodlet arms.