What a Beautiful Smile

When you write historicals, you often run up against a lot of misconceptions (both readers’ and your own). I’ve had the rant about “no, our characters weren’t shorter” fight more than once. So often in fact that I did a blog post about it several years back. I’ve also tried my best to demystify the history of kilts and clan tartans (to much grousing) and have tackled thorny and unpopular topics like pointing out that croquet is Victorian and the hymen is NOT located internally.

Skull by Pedro WEINGARTNER
Skull by Pedro WEINGARTNER


Today I want to highlight a very interesting bit of historical archology that came to my attention recently: people used to have very straight teeth! It’s almost a gimmie that when you see a historical film or show the production will highlight the snaggly teeth of the characters that happen to be poor. But it turns out that’s anachronistic!

Janet Monge—curator of the physical anthropology section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—has studied a lot of skulls and she noticed something very interesting about them. To quote, “Nobody in the past had dental problems, like we are talking nobody.”

So what exactly got us to the point where we are now, where nearly everyone with a perfect smile had to invest a fortune in orthodontia to achieve it? Well, Monge has a theory… and it links like so many other negative physical developments to the industrial revolution. She says the change happened fast and it happened globally (the globally is a fly in the ointment in my opinion, as the industrial revolution didn’t hit across the globe all the same time), but her theory is still interesting. Her hypothesis is that it’s all down to bottle feeding! There’s a very verifiable difference between the development of the jaw an palate in babies that are breastfed and those that are bottle fed (bottles not requiring the same kind of sucking that breasts to in order to receive nourishment). So narrow faces with weaker jaws (but the same number of teeth) result in crowded and crooked smiles.

Silver Pap Boat
Silver Pap Boat

So, our characters would very likely have had beautiful, straight smiles, unless they were so unlucky as to have been “brought up by hand” and nursed on pap from a “bubby pot,’ “pap boat,” or “sucking bottle.” The snaggly teeth we all think of as a common thing pre-braces have really only been common for the past 150-200 years!

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7 Responses to What a Beautiful Smile

  1. Isobwl Carr says:

    Found another theory here (diet), but it puts the change in dental alignment way later than the record shows according to the article I quoted above.


  2. Isobel Carr says:

    Never type on your phone & misspell your own name. *Sigh*

  3. Straight, yes –and that’s very interesting, Isobel! But they didn’t have good bleaching toothpastes, did they? Dental hygiene had not advanced very far, I’m guessing, so stained and perhaps decayed or even broken teeth might still have been the case, especially among the poor. We still see that today! Naturally our heroes and heroines have beautiful teeth. I’m delighted to know the straightness can be accurate!! 🙂

  4. Elena Greene says:

    I don’t know about the breastfeeding theory. Of course this is just anecdotal, but both my girls were breastfed, neither used a pacifier, and they both needed some orthodontic work. The younger had pretty bad crowding. Maybe it was the length of time–they self-weaned at about 18 months.
    The nutritional theory is also interesting, and there may be some truth to both, but it would be interesting to see more scientific data to back up.

  5. This is fascinating and a little of both theories may be true. Still, it is nice to know that heroes and heroines with nice, straight, teeth were not as rare as previously thought!

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