Thursday, May 3, 2012

Civil War History: How did they brush their teeth?

In order to enlist into the Union Army, recruits underwent a physical, which included an examination to determine “whether he had sufficient number of teeth in good condition to masticate his food properly to tear his cartridge quickly and with ease.” As regulations were revised, guidelines became more specific, “total loss of all the front teeth, the eye-teeth, and first molar even if only of one jaw” was cause for rejection.

While many wanted to serve in the military, others saw the “teeth requirement,” as a way out. As Dr. David Noble noted, “one man exhibited twelve sound teeth that had been recently extracted, thus settling the question that a man may stand the steel, but fear the powder and lead.”

Interestingly, the dental health of Americans in the Civil War era was not good, which was attributed to increased use of refined sugar in foods and a greater consumption of fresh, rather than salted meats.

While it would seem that because good teeth were important for a soldier, yet “not only did the US Army enter the war without dental surgeons, but the federal government did not supply toothbrushes for its troops. Dentists hoped the new call to arms would make the military aware of its dental shortcomings.

Any dental care the soldier received once in the Army was either paid for by the individual or received from an Army surgeon, hospital steward, or a trained dentist serving in another capacity in the same unit. The Civil War: Dental Care in the Union Army, 1861-1865

Interestingly, Dr. Samuel Stockton White, inventor of SS White Tooth Powder, which some soldiers carried in their packs, met with Abraham Lincoln, in his capacity to provide dental services to the Union soldiers. Even though he was head of the American Dental Association, nothing came of it.

If a toothbrush was available, and it seems the confederate side was a bit more concerned about dental hygiene, it was most likely handmade. Mass production of toothbrushes didn’t occur in the US until 1885. A toothbrush found at an archeological dig site in Johnson Island, Ohio was described as follows, “Every feature of the toothbrush had been made by hand, from the carving of the handle to the drilling of no fewer than 88 holes for the boar bristles, which were secured to the base with linen thread. Brushing teeth was not common during the mid-nineteenth century, and only elite members of society typically used toothbrushes. Such a fine example reflects the high status of the Confederate officer who owned it.

So what did the soldiers do to clean their teeth? Without a toothbrush, they would have used what ever was handy-rags, salt, a finger, leaves and probably a “chewing stick.”

A chewing stick has been used for tooth brushing for many centuries and continues to this day in some parts of the world. A green twig from a tree or bush would be broken off and the soldier would chew until the fibers became soft and spread. Watch a demonstration on-line. They would then use it much as they would have used a toothbrush. It was only good for one use though.

Many trees, such as dogwood, olive, and walnut do have medicinal properties. Other trees they might have used would have included cherry, apple and even birch.

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