Since their advent more than 2,700 years ago, the materials and techniques used to fabricate dentures have continually improved. Denture patients today benefit from advancements like implant-supported dentures, dental imagery to assess bone mass, and lifelike synthetic teeth. But in the beginning, dentures were not always so high-tech.
Here is a brief overview of just some of the fascinating developments in the history of denture technology.
The first dentures date back to 700 BC and were created by the Etruscans, a culture in ancient Italy. These dentures were fairly crude by modern standards. Ivory from hippos, elephants, and walruses were carved into the denture base and teeth.
Partial dentures were also created by affixing ivory teeth to a gold wire or strip that would be affixed to adjoining teeth.
Ivory was the primary denture base used in Europe through the 1700s and 1800s.
The first set of wooden dentures can be traced back to Japan in the 1500s. These were worn by a nun, Hotokehime, at a temple in Wakayama City.
It is theorized that an impression of Hotokehime’s mouth would have been taken in beeswax, though there is no surviving evidence to show how they accomplished this. Then the entire denture, teeth and all, was carved out of wood.
In later years, a carved wooden base would be joined with teeth from animals, humans, animal horn, or a soft stone called pagodite.
Japanese lore tells us that sculptors of wooden Buddhist statues and other wood carving artisans sometimes switched jobs and became denturists.
Wooden dentures began to make an appearance in Europe in the 1700s and continued to be used in Japan until the 1800s.
In Prussia in the mid-1700s, dentist Philip Pfaff wrote the world’s first comprehensive book on dentistry. Some of his groundbreaking developments and ideas were related to dentures, such as the method of taking an impression by softening sealing wax in hot water and molding the wax to the mouth.
Once the impression was prepared, he also developed the technique of pouring plaster into the mold to make a denture cast.
Beeswax was also commonly used to take dental impressions in the 1700s and mid-1800s.
By the early 1800s, an increased availability of sugar coupled with poor dental hygiene meant a sharp rise in rotten and missing teeth and, correspondingly, a big demand for replacement teeth.
Denture teeth could be carved from hippopotamus, walrus, or elephant ivory, but these looked less real and rotted more quickly than human teeth. Morbidly, human corpses were the preferred source of replacement teeth.
Whenever a major battle took place, like Waterloo in 1815, scavengers with pliers would scour the field to loot the mouths of dead soldiers. The tooth robbing business was fairly lucrative as complete sets of healthy human teeth were highly desired.
Scavenged teeth would be sorted by size and shape into complete sets, to make it look like each set of upper and lower teeth had come from a single body. Sets of teeth would then be sold to early denturists who would boil them, remove the roots, and affix them onto ivory bases.
Dentures made from battle-scavenged teeth were commonly advertised as “Waterloo teeth” or “Waterloo ivory.” This promised that the teeth came from young, healthy soldiers instead of other, less desirable sources like executed criminals or older bodies that were typically dug up by grave robbers.
Dentures up to the early 1700s were carved from solid blocks of ivory or bone. A single ivory denture could easily weigh around 50 grams, the equivalent weight of 20 Lincoln pennies. Being so heavy, there was no possibility that a denture could be snugly retained in the mouth.
In the early 1700s, upper and lower dentures began to be constructed with a flat whalebone spring that connected the two dentures. This spring would help to push the dentures against the gums, an improvement in denture stability.
In time, coiled gold and silver would replace whalebone as the material used to make denture springs.
Porcelain dentures and teeth
Up to the 1700s, the porous materials used to make dentures – ivory and bone – would inevitably develop foul odors that were evident to both the denture wearer and their neighbours. In the 1780s, one-piece porcelain dentures made an appearance. While this advancement solved the odor issue, the porcelain needed to be fired to harden it. This process would severely shrink the porcelain, leading to a predictably unsatisfactory denture fit.
In the 1800s, gold and silversmith Claudius Ash began making dentures. Up to this time, denture teeth were either made from ivory that was prone to discolouring, or from human teeth extracted from dead bodies. Ash was granted a patent for fabricating artificial teeth from porcelain, which he then mounted on gold plates with gold springs. His dentures for the time were considered superior both aesthetically and functionally.
In 1839, Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered vulcanization, a process which massively improved the lifespan, function, and strength of rubber. One of the eventual applications of this technology was a vulcanized rubber denture base.
The vulcanite denture base allowed dentures to be far more comfortable to wear than ivory or bone. Sometimes, rubber suction pads were incorporated into the palatal surface, which helped with denture retention and was an improvement over springs.
Because wax is greatly affected by temperature, the impressions taken with it were not terribly reliable. By the mid-1800s, dentists started using plaster of Paris as their impression material. The accuracy was an improvement over wax. However, plaster is not elastic or pliable. This meant that once the impression material had set around the teeth or gums, the dentist would need to tap it with a mallet to break the impression material out of the mouth. They would then reassemble the impression outside of the mouth.
This impression technique continued until the early 1900s when more modern impression materials become available.