According to George Washington’s ledger, on May 8, 1784, he paid 6 pounds 2 shillings to “Negroes for 9 Teeth, on acc[oun]t of the French Dentis [sic] Doctr Lemay [sic].” .1

Washington's dentures faq

George Washington Ledger B, 1772-1793, May 8, 1784, Library of Congress.

George Washington Ledger B, 1772-1793, May 8, 1784, Library of Congress.

We know that George Washington participated in one purchase of teeth from unidentified enslaved persons at Mount Vernon. A record of this transaction is entered twice in George Washington’s financial records. In May 1784, the Mount Vernon plantation manager, Lund Washington, recorded, in his journal of accounts, under the heading, “Cash p[ai]d on Acc[oun]t of Genrl. Washington” the following transaction: “To p[ai]d Negroes for 9 Teeth, on acc[oun]t of the French Dentis [sic] Doctr Lemay [sic].” This same transaction was subsequently transcribed in George Washington’s ledger of accounts, as a credit to Lund: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acc[oun]t of Dr Lemoin.” According to the best practices of 18th-century bookkeeping, the journal of accounts contained a simple listing of payments and receipts as they occurred; the ledger of accounts organized this information on a client by client basis, using a more complex system of double entry bookkeeping.2

In both cases, the explicit notation “on the account” of the dentist points to Jean Pierre Le Mayeur as the end recipient. If Washington had been purchasing the teeth for himself, there would have been no need for this information; the entries would have simply recorded the item and payment, as when Washington purchased poultry, wild game, fish, and garden produce from enslaved individuals.

At the time of this transaction, the French-trained dentist Jean Pierre Le Mayeur was temporarily staying in the Mount Vernon area, and advertising his availability to perform tooth transplants in the Alexandria, Virginia, newspapers. If Le Mayeur was like other contemporary dentists who made dentures or attempted tooth transplants, he would have needed a stock of teeth as part of his professional tool kit, in order to try to match the appearance of his patient’s natural teeth as closely as possible.

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While it may seem particularly gruesome, a perfectly acceptable means of making money was by selling teeth to dentists. Since at least the end of the Middle Ages, very poor people have sold their teeth for use in both dentures and in tooth transplant operations to benefit those wealthy enough to afford these procedures. Healthy incisors, preferably from young, healthy donors, were necessary for transplantation. Whereas, teeth used in dentures could be either incisors or molars and might even be taken from corpses.3

Citations

  1. George Washington Ledger B, 1772-1793, May 8, 1784, p 179, http://financial.gwpapers.org/?q=content/ledger-b-1772-1793-pg179. Based on Washington’s papers Lemay and Le Moyer/Le Mayeur/Lemaire are the same person. For more on French dentist, Jean Pierre Le Mayeur see https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-04-02-0002-0009-0015
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bennion, Antique Dental Instruments, 82; Weinberger, Introduction to the History of Dentistry, 1:357 & 366; Woodforde, The Strange Story of False Teeth, 28, 61-63, 83.

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