I am aware that it is Christmas, and perhaps it just fits with the type of year we have had, but our household is running a bit behind. For one thing, I am in the process of transitioning my living room into a library (more on that in a future blog), but most recently, my eighteen year old daughter had her wisdom teeth out on Friday. This was her first surgery, first time she has ever been placed under anesthesia, and to say she was nervous is an understatement. While we waited for the oral surgeon to come in, she sought ways to distract herself and asked, “What did they do about wisdom teeth two hundred years ago?” (My daughter knows how to get me to ramble.)
“Well, when you had a toothache, they pulled the tooth. Now in your case, the molar you can see isn’t the problem. It’s the one under the gum growing into the one you see. So, it may or may not fix the problem.”
Her eyes grew rounder than they already were. “That’s crazy!” Then, like she always does, she became pensive and added, “I wonder if, in two hundred years, they will look back to now and say ‘They had surgery and took a week to recover? That’s crazy!’ They’ll probably just laser them away. Poof!”
Then the surgeon came in dressed like “an alien” (as she described him on the way home in a very slurred voice and large, anime eyes), everything was explained, and I was escorted out.
Of course, I couldn’t leave it at this simple interaction. So here is a brief summary of tooth removal in the early 1800s that you probably never wanted to know. (You’re welcome.)
I’m not sure how much of a history geek you might be, but most of us probably read or heard from somewhere that you went to the barber or blacksmith to have teeth removed when you had a toothache. “A blacksmith?” you say. Yes, because he was probably the only person in a small country town who owned pliers or tongs. The barber, on the other hand, makes a bit more sense as they were responsible for “beautifying” their customers. Of course, this could include making false teeth which, if you have seen or read Les Misérables, you know may very well be made from real human teeth in addition to wood or hippopotamus teeth* (I read it, I swear).
What surprised me as I did my research, was there were actual dentists in the early 1800s. Of course, they were normally found in major cities such as London or Bath. If you were mindful of dental health, “the first toothbrushes came along in the 18th century . . . these were relatively expensive, so it was not uncommon for family members to share a toothbrush.”* Ew.
As is often the case when doing research, I started reviewing Austen characters to see who I could torment with my newfound information. As wisdom teeth normally come in between the ages of 17 and 21, and I normally default to the Pride and Prejudice characters, poor Mary Bennet was the first to come to mind. I didn’t put her through too much, but here it is. (Please be kind, this is a quickie without thorough editing and no expectation for it to be used in the future.)
Elizabeth watched her sister closely. Mary rarely spoke unless it was to deliver a lesson in moral extractions, but she appeared even more sombre today, if such a thing were possible. They sat across the breakfast table from one another, presenting an unobstructed view of her subject. Though Mary normally ate a healthy helping of bacon, ham, or sausage, today her plate held only eggs and a soft roll; and those were mostly untouched.
As Elizabeth considered the meaning behind this, Mary took a sip of tea and winced.
“Are you well?” she asked, startling her sister and silencing Lydia’s latest raptures over the recently arrived militia.
Mary looked about before her wide eyes returned to Elizabeth. “Me?” she asked in a soft voice.
“Yes, Mary. You normally have a healthy appetite in the morning, but today you have barely touched your meal.”
“What’s this?” Mrs. Bennet called. “If you are ill, you should remain in bed. Hill can bring you broth and willow bark tea.”
“I do not feel ill,” Mary replied. This time Elizabeth noted her sister held her jaw suspiciously still while she spoke.
“Does your tooth pain you?” she asked, remembering a discussion a few weeks prior while visiting the Lucases. Sir William, learning Mary’s back tooth had begun to ache, related a gruesome tale of his younger brother having a tooth extracted at just Mary’s age. When he described the size of the tongs the blacksmith used, her poor sister became alarmingly pale and dear Charlotte quickly changed the subject.
“No!” Mary cried, but immediately flinched.
“A toothache?” Kitty’s eyes were filled with fear as she examined Mary’s countenance. She, too, had been party to Sir William’s story.
Mrs. Bennet rang the bell. When Hill arrived, she requested a bandage and oil of cloves. They were quickly produced and, after saturating the bit of cloth, she approached her middle daughter.
“Open your mouth,” Mrs. Bennet instructed.
Ever obedient, Mary still hesitated before following her mother’s instructions.
“Come now, child, would you rather I send for Mr. Jones?”
Mary opened her mouth and pointed to the affected area.
“Yes, it’s swollen.” Mrs. Bennet placed the soaked cloth between the gum and the cheek. “Now, you may return to bed or sit with us. I suspect you will feel better soon enough.”
“Thank you, Mama,” Mary managed to say before slipping from her chair.
Mrs. Bennet shook her head as she watched Mary leave the room. “I will have words with Sir William for frightening the child in such a way.” She turned back to the others. “There are many ways to deal with a toothache that do not include tongs a yard long. If you are ever in pain, you must tell me so we can treat it.” She resumed her place at the head of the table. “When the swelling goes down, we will send for Mr. Jones to have a look at Mary’s tooth.” She picked up her fork and turned to her youngest. “Now, what were you saying Colonel Forster did, Lydia?”
If you want more information on the intriguing details of dental history, here are two of the blogs I found most helpful:
Oh, and in case you are wondering, my daughter’s swelling is starting to go down and she asked for something more solid for dinner tonight. She will probably never eat oatmeal again, or will think of the time she had her wisdom teeth out if she does.
(Oh, and sorry for the pun in the title – I have had the song “Truth Be Told” by Matthew West stuck in my head for the last two weeks.)
Wishing everyone a blessed holiday season – but stay away from those sweets (or make sure you brush your teeth). 😉