Next to the Cherry Tree legend, the story that George Washington wore wooden dentures arguably remains the most widespread and enduring myth about Washington's personal life. While Washington certainly suffered from dental problems and wore multiple sets of dentures composed of a variety of materials—including ivory, gold, and lead—wood was never used in Washington's dentures nor was it commonly employed by dentists in his era.
Nevertheless, even into the mid-twentieth century scholars published studies of Washington describing his false teeth as being crafted out of wood. Today older adults still remember being taught this tale in school, and the National Museum of Dentistry, the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, and the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia find these mythical dentures a common subject of interest for visitors.
The origin of this myth remains unclear. The standard, and most likely, explanation given by dental scientists and historians is that the ivory employed in the dentures fabricated for Washington by dentist John Greenwood became stained over time, giving them a grained, wooden appearance that misled later observers. Indeed, in a 1798 letter to Washington, Greenwood emphasized the importance of cleaning these dentures regularly after examining ones Washington had used and sent to him for repair: "the sett you sent me from philadelphia...was very black...Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish."1
The now discredited story of Washington's wooden teeth does reflect elements of truth, however. For instance, in one version of this myth Washington carved the wooden teeth himself, and it is true that on occasion he made his own repairs to the dentures made by Greenwood.2 Furthermore, the myth of the wooden teeth remains the only myth associated with a major Founder that calls attention to the individual's physical frailty and thus serves as a reminder of the genuine struggles Washington experienced as he sacrificed his health in public service.
Washington called attention to the "frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time," for instance, in his First Inaugural Address in 1789, a speech he delivered when he had only a single remaining natural tooth.3 The myth of Washington's wooden teeth conventionally imagines such wooden contraptions as understandably painful to wear, thus supposedly explaining Washington's dour expression in his most well-known portraits.
Washington did actually experience great discomfort and facial distortion with his cumbersome metal and ivory dentures.4 Moreover, the belief that Washington had to use teeth made out of ordinary wood—as opposed to the technologically advanced and expensive contraptions he actually did wear—helps make Washington more accessible to the general public as a common person with everyday struggles. Perhaps this myth has endured because it balances Washington's imposing status in American history and the idealized images of the man presented in other myths like the Cherry Tree legend and, in doing so, humanizes an individual who may often seem remote and statuesque.
William M. Etter, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Irvine Valley College
1. John Greenwood to George Washington, New York, 28 December 1789, in ed. Dorothy Twohig, The Papers of George Washington. Retirement Series, Vol. 3 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1988): 289.
2. "George Washington to John Greenwood, 20 January 1797," in George Washington, Writings, ed. John Rodehamel (New York: Library of America, 1997), 986.
3. George Washington, "First Inaugural Address, 30 April 1789," in George Washington, Writings, ed. John Rodehamel (New York: Library of America, 1997), 731.
4. "George Washington to John Greenwood, 20 January 1797," in George Washington, Writings, ed. John Rodehamel (New York: Library of America, 1997), 985-986.
George Washington In and As Culture, eds. Kevin L. Cope, William S. Pederson and Frank Williams. New York: AMS Press, 2001.
Lengel, Edward G. Inventing George Washington: America's Founder in Myth & Memory. New York: Harper’s, 2011.
Unger, Harlow Giles. The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.