When George Washington opened his mouth 225 years ago this Wednesday at New York’s Federal Hall to take the oath as the first president of the United States, he wore awkward-fitting, painful, face-disfiguring dentures. For years, he had suffered from dental problems; that morning he had swollen, burning gums and only a single original tooth in his mouth. He wore this particular set of dentures during the last nine years of his life. They clacked and creaked open and shut on tight wire springs.
Folklore notwithstanding, Washington’s false teeth were not wooden. He obtained them instead from horses, donkeys, cows — and human beings. (According to his account books, in 1784, emulating some of his affluent friends, he bought nine teeth from unidentified “Negroes” — perhaps enslaved African-Americans at his beloved Mount Vernon; the price was 122 shillings.)
Washington strove, in life, to resemble a monument. This was important to his self-esteem and, he believed, to the dignity and credibility of his fledgling nation. To him, the dentures were a mortifying sign of weakness. (For years, Washington’s dentures were kept out of public view to avoid marring his image; they are now a popular attraction at Mount Vernon’s excellent museum.)
He once pleaded with his dentist, John Greenwood, by letter, to avoid any change to the denture “which will, in the least degree force the lips out more than now do, as it does this too much already.” Members of his cabinet sadly noted how rarely the tight-lipped president smiled or laughed. Others insisted that his embarrassment about his dentures, which sometimes caused him to hiss as he spoke, made him reclusive.
The French mathematician and philosopher Pascal once said that had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, “the whole face of the world would have been changed.” Had Washington kept his original mouthful of gleaming white teeth, the commanding president might have been even more effective in using the force of his personality on Hamilton, Jefferson and the other combative Americans he dealt with in the 1790s. These dentures also underscore the axiom that anyone nostalgically longing to reside in some earlier century should ponder what daily human life was like before modern dentistry.