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What were Washington’s dentures made of?

There are four dentures belonging to George Washington preserved in museum collections. The only surviving complete set is on display at Mount Vernon, and a fifth set is believed to have been entombed with Washington’s body. Each of the four known dentures is constructed differently and of different materials, as though the dentist(s) who made them were continually experimenting.

Collectively, these four dentures include: hippopotamus, walrus, and probably elephant ivory; cow, horse, and human teeth; lead, brass, silver, gold, and tiny wood pegs. Only two of the dentures (including the set at Mount Vernon) contain human teeth, for the incisors on the lower jaw.

Who did the human teeth in Washington’s dentures come from?

We don’t know. The teeth were likely supplied by the dentist who made the dentures. Eighteenth-century dentists who made dentures frequently maintained a stock of teeth so that they could try to match the size, shape, and color of their patients’ natural teeth.

Dentists advertised in newspapers to purchase human teeth, and these ads indicate that there was an active “tooth trade,” particularly in urban areas – gruesome as that is. Through this trade, poor individuals – enslaved or free, black or white – could sell their teeth to dentists for the benefit of wealthy clients. Teeth could also be taken from dead people.

Do Washington’s dentures contain teeth from enslaved individuals?

We don’t know, but it is possible that they do. The two surviving dentures that contain human teeth were made between 1789 and 1795. The teeth in them were presumably obtained either in New York, where the president’s dentist, John Greenwood, worked, or in Philadelphia, where Washington lived during most of the presidency. We do not have any information on whose teeth were used. Whether enslaved or free, black or white, people selling teeth were certainly poor, and desperate enough for cash to venture the pain of tooth-pulling without anesthetic.

Did Washington ever obtain teeth from enslaved people that he owned?

Washington’s financial records document the payment of cash for nine teeth from unidentified “Negroes” in May 1784. This transaction has been widely interpreted as providing teeth for Washington’s own use, for either dentures or transplantation. An understanding of 18th-century accounting practices points to these particular teeth becoming the property of the dentist Jean Pierre Le Mayeur. It is possible that teeth obtained from enslaved people could have been used in making dentures for Washington at another time.

What do we know about the transaction in May 1784? This transaction is entered twice in George Washington’s financial records: first in the journal of accounts (a simple listing of payments and receipts as they occurred), and then in the ledger of accounts (which used double entry bookkeeping to organize information on a client by client basis). The journal of accounts kept by Mount Vernon plantation manager Lund Washington records, 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.” In both cases, the explicit notation “on the account” of the dentist points to 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 Le Mayeur was temporarily staying in the Mount Vernon area, and advertising in the Alexandria, Virginia, newspapers his availability to perform tooth transplants. Following practices at the time, teeth for this purpose could have been supplied by enslaved people or free individuals desperate for cash.

Do Washington’s dentures contain teeth obtained from enslaved people that he owned?

We don’t know. In May 1784, Washington’s dentist, Jean Pierre Le Mayeur, obtained nine teeth from enslaved people at Mount Vernon. If Le Mayeur used these teeth in dentures for Washington, it would have been for a partial denture, as the general retained a number of his natural teeth as late as 1785. No partial dentures survive. The two dentures that do survive with human teeth were both made after 1789, when Washington lost his second-to-last natural tooth. It is possible that the teeth in these two later dentures came from Mount Vernon enslaved people, but there is no evidence of such a transaction. It seems more likely that the dentist who constructed the dentures either supplied teeth from his stock or purchased them from poor individuals in New York or Philadelphia.

What happened to the teeth sold by Mount Vernon enslaved people in May 1784?

We don’t know. Most likely, they ended up in the mouth of one or more unknown patients of the dentist Jean Pierre Le Mayeur, who is identified in George Washington’s financial records as the recipient of the teeth sold by the enslaved. Le Mayeur had treated General Washington in New York in 1783, and the following spring he spent several weeks in northern Virginia. In addition to visiting Mount Vernon, he advertised tooth transplants and other dental services in the newspaper in the nearby town of Alexandria.

The teeth he obtained from the enslaved people at Mount Vernon could have been used on any of his patients in Alexandria, or added to his supply, to be carried with him as he moved his itinerant practice from place to place seeking patients. Unfortunately, Le Mayeur’s papers have not been preserved, so we do not know what specific services, if any, he provided to Washington in 1784 or who his other clients were.

Were the teeth sold by Mount Vernon enslaved people in 1784 taken involuntarily?

We don’t know if the enslaved people were forced to give up their teeth, either by Mount Vernon’s plantation manager, Lund Washington (presumably at George Washington’s behest) or directly by George Washington. The threat of physical punishment to coerce behavior was always present for enslaved people, so they could have felt compelled to provide teeth even if they were not physically forced to do so.

However, George Washington regularly paid enslaved individuals that he owned for marketable commodities: poultry they raised, game or wild fowl they hunted, or produce that they grew in gardens they kept on land that he owned. Paying for teeth as another marketable commodity seems consistent with this documented practice.

What don't we know yet?

  • We don’t know when or in what sequence George Washington lost most of his teeth.
  • We don’t know if his tooth loss was caused by decay or gum disease (dental historians suggest that the latter is more likely).
  • We don’t know how many dentures (partial and full) Washington had over the course of his life.
  • We don’t know if he had partial dentures prior to 1789. If so, we don’t know when he began using them, who made them, or how many he had.
  • We don’t know what, if any, dental services Jean Pierre Le Mayeur provided to Washington in 1784.
  • We don’t know what happened to the nine teeth that George Washington’s plantation manager, Lund Washington, paid unnamed enslaved people for in May 1784.
  • We don’t know what kind of teeth these nine teeth were – upper or lower incisors, canines, or molars.
  • We don’t know if George Washington received a tooth transplant from Jean Pierre Le Mayeur in 1784.
  • We don’t know if Le Mayeur continued to provide dental services to Washington after 1789, when the president began patronizing dentist John Greenwood in New York.
  • We don’t know who made the dentures that survive in the collection at Mount Vernon, or when they were made, between 1789 and 1795.
  • We don’t know the origins of the common misconception that Washington had wooden teeth.
  • We don’t know the locations of several missing Washington dentures once owned by descendants of dentist John Greenwood.