Dental Health During the American Revolution in the 1700s

Dental Health During the American Revolution

Last Updated on: 26th June 2024, 05:14 pm

The American Revolutionary War was a period of significant upheaval and transformation, but it also marked an era of widespread dental suffering. Dental health in the 1700s was rudimentary at best, and most people lacked basic knowledge of oral hygiene.

Cavities, gum disease, and tooth loss were prevalent, accompanied by the associated pain and discomfort. There were no effective anesthetics, making tooth extractions, when necessary, extremely painful. Overall, dental health in the 1700s was very poor. Pain and suffering were common given that dental care was primitive and ineffective. It wasn’t until the 19th century that significant advancements in dentistry began to take place, leading to the improvements we know and benefit from today.


Dental Health in the 1700s: A Grim Reality

Dental Health in the 1700s_ A Grim Reality

1. Primitive dental care: During the 1700s, dental care was primarily provided by barbers and tooth pullers who had little to no formal training. Their methods were often brutal and ineffective, reflecting the rudimentary state of dental knowledge and practice at the time.

2. Limited oral hygiene knowledge: Most people in the 1700s were unaware of the importance of regular tooth brushing and flossing. As a result, plaque and tartar accumulated on teeth, leading to widespread cavities and gum disease.

3. Sugar-rich diets: The typical American diet in the 1700s was high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, further exacerbating the problem of tooth decay. Although there were specialized groups performing dental procedures, dentistry was not yet a recognized profession. Dental work was often carried out by physicians as part of general medicine, continuing practices from ancient Greece. In some regions like China and France, barbers also took on dental duties, using their dexterity and tools to perform extractions and alleviate pain.

4. Emergence of dental guilds: In 1210, a Guild of Barbers was established in France, marking a significant development in the field. Barbers eventually split into two groups: trained surgeons who performed complex operations and lay barbers who handled routine hygiene and extractions. This separation marked the beginning of more specialized and skilled dental practices, setting the stage for future advancements.

Overall, dental health in the 1700s was plagued by primitive care, a lack of hygiene knowledge, and diets that promoted tooth decay. It wasn’t until the 19th century that significant progress in dentistry began to emerge, leading to the improved dental health standards we enjoy today.


Common Dental Practices and Tools

Common Dental Practices and Tools

Maintaining a healthy smile in the 1700s was a far cry from the routine we follow today. While we might reach for a sleek, plastic toothbrush with fluoride toothpaste, people back then relied on primitive tools and methods.

1. Natural brushes: Forget fancy bristles! Twigs from neem and miswak trees served as early toothbrushes, offering a natural way to scrub teeth.

2. Abrasive cleaners: Salt and baking soda were the cleaning agents of choice. While they might provide some friction, they lacked the germ-fighting power of modern toothpaste.

3. Early toothbrushes: For those who didn’t prefer twigs, some used rudimentary toothbrushes made from bone or wood handles with animal hair bristles. These were likely less comfortable and effective than their modern counterparts.

These practices differed significantly from modern dental care in several ways:

  • Effectiveness: Natural brushes and abrasive cleaners were simply not as efficient at removing plaque and bacteria compared to modern toothbrushes and toothpaste.
  • Gentleness: Twigs and abrasive powders could be harsh on gums and teeth, whereas modern brushes and toothpaste are formulated to be gentle yet effective.
  • Hygiene awareness: The importance of regular brushing and flossing wasn’t widely understood in the 1700s, leading to more frequent dental problems.

Overall, dental care in the 1700s was a far less pleasant and effective experience than what we’re fortunate to have today.


Typical Dental Issues and Treatments

Typical Dental Issues and Treatments
The Surgeon Dentist

1. Early innovations in dental care: As early as 700 AD, a Chinese article noted the use of a silver paste as an amalgam to maintain oral hygiene. This early innovation laid the groundwork for future dental advancements. Fast forward to 1723, when a French surgeon published a book entitled, The Surgeon Dentist. This publication became a cornerstone for modern dentistry, covering aspects such as oral surgery techniques, denture construction, and oral anatomy. These contributions were pivotal in shaping the foundational practices of contemporary dental care.

2. Innovations of the 1700s: The 18th century saw significant advancements in dental care that made oral hygiene more accessible and comfortable. In 1746, Frenchman Mouton recommended the use of white enamel on the crowns of gold teeth, marking an aesthetic improvement in dental restorations. By 1790, porcelain teeth were introduced as part of a broader strategy to enhance oral health, with the first known patient receiving the innovative dental prosthetics. These advancements reflected a growing awareness of the importance of dental health and the need for better solutions to dental problems.

3. Challenges of dental care in the 1700s: Despite these advancements, dental care in the 1700s was far from ideal. Imagine a throbbing toothache with no dentist to turn to. This was the harsh reality for many people during this era. Dental problems like tooth decay, gum disease, and abscesses were rampant, causing significant pain and suffering. When the pain became unbearable, tooth extraction was often the only option. However, these procedures were conducted in non-sterile environments by barbers and even blacksmiths with little to no dental training, making the experience extremely painful and frightening.

3. Challenges of Dental Care in the 1700s

4. Herbal remedies and primitive dentures: For those seeking less drastic solutions, herbal remedies offered some relief. Clove oil, known for its numbing properties, was a popular choice for toothaches, while other herbs were used to soothe inflamed gums or freshen breath. However, these remedies were often ineffective against serious dental issues. If a tooth was lost, individuals had to resort to primitive dentures made from animal teeth, ivory, or even human teeth. These dentures were usually ill-fitting and uncomfortable, causing additional problems like mouth sores and difficulty eating.

5. Early American dental practices: When the Pilgrims arrived in America in 1638, they brought physicians, an apothecary, and three barber-surgeons. These barber-surgeons provided services such as bloodletting and tooth extractions alongside shaving and hair treatments. While it’s unclear who was the first practicing dentist in the American colonies, early dentists like Woofendale, Mills, Baker, Flagg, Greenwood, and Paul Revere were pioneers in the field. Their methods, however, were only marginally better than those of the barber-surgeons.

6. A Reflection on dental care progress: The state of dental care in the 1700s highlights a time when a healthy smile was a luxury. Painful extractions, ineffective remedies, and uncomfortable dentures were common realities. This historical perspective underscores the remarkable advancements in modern dentistry, which now allows us to address dental issues with greater ease and effectiveness.


The Rise of Professional Dentistry: Notable Figures

The Rise of Professional Dentistry_ Notable Figures
Pierre Fauchard

The profession of dentistry as we know it today owes a great debt to the pioneering work of several individuals. While the early colonial period in America relied heavily on traditional remedies and the skills of barber-surgeons, a significant turning point came with the influence of Pierre Fauchard (1678-1761). Widely regarded as the father of modern dentistry, Fauchard’s tireless efforts transformed dentistry from a haphazard craft into a respected profession based on scientific principles.

  • Pierre Fauchard’s contributions: Fauchard’s groundbreaking text, Le Chirurgien Dentiste (The Surgeon Dentist), published in 1723, stands as a cornerstone of dental knowledge. This comprehensive treatise meticulously documented oral anatomy, function, and various dental pathologies. It detailed operative methods for removing decay, restorative techniques for treating cavities, and even touched on orthodontics, endodontics, and the replacement of missing teeth.
  • Innovative approaches: Fauchard’s meticulous work went beyond simply compiling existing knowledge. He critically evaluated established practices, discarding ineffective techniques and advocating for new approaches. He also debunked the outdated “tooth worm” theory, proposing instead that sugar consumption contributed to tooth decay. Fauchard actively challenged the disreputable practices of charlatans, striving to establish dentistry as a trustworthy field grounded in scientific reasoning.

As European colonists migrated westward, they brought with them their knowledge and practices related to oral health. Early settlements saw the arrival of barber-surgeons and tooth pullers who provided basic dental services. These practitioners often relied on folk remedies and rudimentary tools. However, a gradual shift towards more sophisticated dentistry occurred with the arrival of surgeon-dentists and trained dental operators.

rudimentary tools (1)

  • John Baker and early practitioners: One such early practitioner was John Baker, who immigrated from England in 1760, becoming the first medically trained dentist to establish a practice in America. These early dentists not only treated patients but also served as instructors for the next generation of dental professionals.
  • Isaac and John Greenwood: Isaac Greenwood is considered the first American-born dentist. Several of his sons followed in their father’s footsteps, establishing their own dental practices and further contributing to the growth of the profession. John Greenwood, the son of Isaac Greenwood, achieved national recognition as the dentist for America’s first president, George Washington.

Contrary to popular belief about wooden teeth, John Greenwood crafted complex dentures for Washington using a combination of metal, bone, and ivory. He even created different sets for aesthetic and speaking purposes, as well as a more functional set for eating that incorporated springs within a heavy metal framework.

  • Paul Revere’s dental skills: Another iconic figure who dabbled in early dentistry is Paul Revere. Before gaining fame as a midnight rider, Revere honed his dental skills under the tutelage of John Baker, learning how to create dentures from ivory. He even went on to open his own dental practice. Revere is credited with performing one of the first instances of dental forensics, successfully identifying the remains of a person based on a dental appliance he had constructed for the deceased.

The foundation of professional dentistry in the United States can be traced back to the 1630s with the arrival of barber-surgeons who accompanied the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Following John Baker’s lead, other immigrants like Robert Wooffendale and Jacques Gardette brought their dental expertise to America, establishing practices in New York City and Philadelphia, respectively.

  • Transition to professional dentistry: Early dental care benefited from the skills of artisans, such as ivory turners. Isaac Greenwood, initially an artisan, transitioned into dentistry in 1779, becoming the first American-born dentist. His legacy extends beyond his own practice, as four of his sons became dentists as well, with John Greenwood reaching national prominence for treating President Washington.



The evolution of dental health from the 1700s to today showcases remarkable progress. Initially plagued by primitive practices, a lack of hygiene knowledge, and painful treatments, dental care has been transformed significantly. Pioneering work by Pierre Fauchard and the contributions of skilled practitioners from Europe and early American dentists like Isaac and John Greenwood laid the scientific foundation for modern dentistry.

This journey from rudimentary care to advanced practices emphasizes the importance of continued innovation in the field. The advancements made over the centuries ensure better dental health and comfort for future generations, underscoring humanity’s enduring quest for improvement.


Frequently Asked Questions 

People used natural brushes like neem and miswak twigs, abrasive cleaners like salt and baking soda, and early toothbrushes made of bone or wood with animal hair bristles.

Toothaches were treated with herbal remedies such as clove oil, and problematic teeth were often extracted by barbers or blacksmiths.

Pierre Fauchard is known as the father of modern dentistry whose work laid the foundation for professional dental practices.

The colonial diet, rich in sugars and hard foods, contributed significantly to tooth decay and other dental issues.

John Greenwood was one of George Washington’s dentists, known for creating the dental foot engine and crafting some of Washington’s dentures.



  1. Connor, R. A. , Kamen, . Saul , Ring, . Malvin E. and Dorfman, . Jeffrey (2023, December 28). dentistry. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  2. Perry, D.A., Fales M.H. (Jan 14, 2015). Historical Perspectives on Dental Hygiene and Periodontology. Pocket Dentistry.
  3. Kezian, Steven A. (2020) “The History of the Dental Profession – From Ancient Origins to Modern Day,” Pacific Journal of Health: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 2. DOI:
  4. Kenmore, F. (Sep 02, 2015). Dental Care in Early America.


Contact Us

If you have any questions about using halitosis and how to treat it or other dental topics, you can contact us at Channel Islands Family Dental as well as our page on Facebook. We look forward to your visit and we will make a timely diagnosis. Our dentists in Oxnard, Santa Paula, Ventura, Newbury Park, and Port Hueneme will be able to guide you toward the best treatment to take care of your health and give you back your best smile.

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