Washington’s Wooden Teeth and Other Myths

Cherry Tree Myth

My elementary school teachers taught me the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.  I was inspired by boy George’s honesty. Then, I learned in high school that this inspiring example of honesty was false. Ironic! It was just a myth or legend to inspire honesty.  (Learning this about my hero was like learning the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.)

Wooden False Teeth Myth

My college professors taught me that George Washington had false teeth made out of wood. Like the story of the cherry tree, I bought the wooden denture story “hook line and sinker.” I thought, while elementary school teachers might make mistakes, college professors. with their Ph.D.’s. wouldn’t teach something that was wrong. Would they?

I am reluctant to admit that I still believed the wooden denture story until recently. I was wrong. 

Next to the cherry tree legend, the most widespread and enduring Washington myth is that he had wooden false teeth.

It is true that Washington suffered dental problems, and he had several sets of false teeth. It is also true that his dentures were uncomfortable and often gave him problems when he spoke. Sometimes his dentures made it difficult for people to hear and understand him. Some of his portraits even look like he is wearing dentures. What is not true is that the dentures were made out of wood. 

Interestingly, the use of dentures dates clear back to 700 BC with the Etruscans in Northern, Italy. Even then, they didn’t make false teeth out of wood. They used animal or human teeth. 

In Washington’s day, among the wealthy class, dentures were made out of carved ivory. Gold and lead were often used as supporting material.

Had I really thought about it, using wood for false teeth just doesn’t make sense. Wood is too soft. Wood would soak up drinking fluids and saliva. Wood easily cracks and splinters. What about all of the slivers in the gums, cheeks, and tongue? Yikes! Your mouth would feel like you bit into a cactus.

In sum, the use of wooden dentures was not a standard practice in Washington’s day. Washington was rich, and he would have had the best dentures money could buy, probably ivory and gold.   

Silver Dollar Toss Myth

Another George Washington myth is that he was so strong, he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Silver dollars did not exist in George Washington’s day. Plus, Potomac River is a mile wide at Mount Vernon.

Baldness Myth

Another George Washington myth is that he wore wigs to cover his baldness. Even though wigs were fashionable, Washington did not wear one. He kept his hair long and tied in the back. He did powder his hair white, which was another fashion of the day.

George Washington, “Father of our Country,” was great enough on his own without the need of myths and legends to enhance his reputation.

(Sources: Personal tours of Mount Vernon; “Ten Common Misconceptions About George Washington,” MountVernon.org; “How George Washington Did His Hair,” Smithsonian Magazine, Marissa Fessenden, June 9, 2015, smithsonian.com.)

(For other articles go to: http://www.londonedition.net)

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