OFF THE RECORD
A set of advertisements for a Victorian dentist prove rather eye-opening for
A set of adverts for a Victorian dentist give Alan Crosby plenty to chew over
Advertisements in old newspapers are an endless source of harmless fun. “Why on earth did they fall for it?” I ask myself, before thinking of the implausible claims made by many TV ads (surely hair can’t be that glossy!). A gentleman called Lloyd advertised regularly in the Preston Herald during the late 1860s and early 1870s, under the eye-catching headline “FRENCH, AMERICAN, AND ENGLISH ARTIFICIAL TEETH”. A dentist with premises in the town centre, he was a real enthusiast, announcing “to the people of Lancashire generally, and the inhabitants of Preston particularly” that he continued to supply his celebrated “incorrodible, incorruptible, and undetectable MINERAL ARTIFICIAL TEETH”.
These were available in five qualities, which in 1868 ranged from teeth “on pure gold” at 20 guineas down to “strong vulcanite, for the working classes only, warranted to fit well, and to answer all the purposes of mastication and articulation” for 5 guineas – although £5 might be half a year’s wage, so investing in new gnashers was beyond the reach of most workers. They remained gappy in appearance, and mumbling of speech.
Lloyd’s advertisements reveal much about the horrors of Victorian dentistry, for he made a special point of not following “the old and almost obsolete practice of removing sound and healthy stumps, and thereby completely destroying the symmetry of the mouth, making young people to look old, causing a great deal of acute, unnecessary pain, and necessitating the permanent adoption of artificial gums”.
In provincial Lancashire a metropolitan connection might imply sophistication. Lloyd was, he announced, assisted by “Mr Smith from London”, who also attended branch establishments at Wigan, Chorley and Lancaster once a week. In 1866 Lloyd proudly stated that “Only one visit is required from Country Patients”, that his patent white cement would fill any holes in real teeth, and that he never used chloroform.
But, as most of us know from our own dental experiences, the absence of anaesthetic was not a good selling point, and by 1869 that claim had been abandoned: “Teeth extracted as usual in a perfectly painless and most agreeable manner by the aid of PURE NITROUS OXIDE GAS.”
Advertisements such as these, highly entertaining at a safe distance of 150 years, reveal much about the nature of contemporary society. Take, for example, the casual reference to “Country Patients”, which highlights the role of the centrally placed market town, while the use of the magic word ‘London’
imbued any advertisement with a sense of glamour. An adjacent small ad uses another magic connection—royalty. It simply exhorts readers to “USE ONLY GLENFIELD STARCH: THE QUEEN’S LAUNDRESS USES NO OTHER”.
It’s proverbial that the Victorians had bad teeth, but in fact archaeological work has shown that their teeth were generally in good condition. They tended to be worn down, because foods were not cleaned and refined in the manner of today’s processed products. Coarse flour, and fine grit in vegetables, acted as an abrasive, steadily wearing away the surface of molars. But the absence of significant quantities of sugar in the diet helped to protect teeth against rot and decay. One unforeseen consequence of the removal of the sugar tax in the 1870s, and the resulting massive increase in consumption (cakes, biscuits, sweets and sugary tea), was dental decay on a grand scale.
Many of our forebears were gap-toothed. It was quite normal – and they did not smile in photographs because they had something to hide. However, by the 1920s false teeth were comparatively affordable, and in a lot of families a son or daughter received a fine new set on their 21st birthday. They would need to have their remaining teeth removed, but then they could grin broadly for the camera!
The Victorians’ teeth were generally in good condition