Saturday, February 19, 2011
George Washington's Bridge
Happy Presidents Day Weekend!
George Washington was raised in old Virginia on the Potomac River--when there were virgin forests and rich land all around him. He was tall and intelligent and seemed to have been a natural leader of men. His life was filled with blessings.
Great teeth, however, were not among them.
He began to lose his teeth early in life, something in his diaries he attributes to his youthful habit of cracking walnuts with his teeth. Modern dentists speculate that he was much more likely to have lost his teeth due to periodontal disease than walnut-cracking.
But, back in the eighteenth century, nobody knew enough about preventive dentistry to remind America's first president that he needed to floss.
In truth, by the time George Washington was elected to office in 1789, though he was not yet sixty years old, it was far too late for flossing. By then he had no teeth left at all (some researchers think he had one tooth left, but that's pretty much the same thing). So, he wore a complete set of dentures.
Many American's have gotten the idea that his teeth were made of wood, but that isn't so. According to Mt. Vernon historians, they were actually made of a combination of cow's teeth, human teeth, and elephant ivory, set in a lead base. And if that doesn't sound unpleasant enough, they also didn't fit well, and the two plates were connected with springs that allowed him to open and close his mouth. Bo-ing!
It is no wonder he isn't smiling in his portraits.
The Smithsonian Institution has Washington's battle sword and his uniform at the National Museum of American History. But the museum collection of Washington's estate, Mount Vernon, can claim the only complete set of his dentures.
The teeth are periodically on display there, and though it may sound like a peculiar thing to look for at a museum, they're worth seeing if you are in the nation's capitol nearby. They are certainly a means one might use to frighten children into remembering to brush.
And, they are a sort of sweet commentary on George Washington. If it is true, as legend has it, that he could not tell a lie, then these may have been the only thing false about the Father of Our Country.