The Story of False Teeth


Nov 04, 2014 by Smart Blog

In the UK, more than 11 million people have at least one false tooth. Modern dentures are made from high-tech materials, in particular polymethylmethacrylate (also known as PMMA), and can be produced in many different colours and shapes. They are generally held in place by the remaining teeth and/or by suction, must be cleaned daily (they attract plaque and bacteria just like real teeth) and removed at night to maintain gum health.

Most modern false teeth are virtually indistinguishable from real teeth, but it was not always that way...


First False Teeth

It has been claimed that the first 'false teeth' were made by early Mexican civilisations, who are alleged to have used animal teeth in place of their own. We do know that the Etruscans, who lived in Italy, made some very good false teeth in the seventh century BC, but the craft seems to have died out and between then and the eighteenth century, relatively little happened to the world of dentures, and indeed to dentistry in general.

For centuries, people did little to their teeth other than clean them a bit and get them pulled out when they rotted beyond the point of endurance. Dentistry did not really exist as a profession: tooth extraction was generally a dangerous and painful experience, carried out by a brave amateur such as the local barber. Even Queen Elizabeth I had several missing teeth, but no dentures - she used cloth to fill the gaps in her teeth on formal occasions.


Life is Sweet

Dentistry became important during the eighteenth century, as the more well-to-do began to eat an increasing amount of sugar - and lost more teeth as a result. The term 'dentist' was first used around 1750 and came from France, where modern dentistry began.

At this point, dentures were mostly made of ivory (particularly from hippos) and real teeth taken from other people - either the poor, who sold their teeth, or from corpses. The battlefields of the Napoleonic wars were a particularly good source of healthy teeth for use in dentures, to the extent that there was briefly a fashion for 'Waterloo teeth'. The ivory or real teeth were sometimes set in gold, which must have made for an interesting smile.

By the early nineteenth century, some dentists were using porcelain to make false teeth, but while they looked good, the teeth were fragile and broke easily.

The early dentures were largely cosmetic and were often removed for eating. However things changed in the mid nineteenth century, when vulcanised rubber was invented. Using vulcanised rubber improved the fit of dentures and made them more durable and by the end of the nineteenth century, when the patents on vulcanised rubber expired, false teeth were affordable for most British people.



Modern dentures have come a very long way and are now routinely fitted to improve the function, appearance and self-esteem of their wearers. Nor are they the only option for replacing missing teeth - bridges and dental implants can also be used. Thankfully the days of using hippo ivory and other people's discarded teeth are now long gone!