In a Nutshell
A common misconception is that George Washington owned a set of wooden dentures. Though he did indeed own and use false teeth they were actually made from several different materials, up to and including gold, lead, silver, ivory and even the teeth of human beings and animals. All of them caused Washington extreme discomfort, they were also all terrifying to look at.
The wooden myth is thought to stem from the fact that over time, Washington’s dentures became stained, giving them a wood like appearance to a casual observer.
The Whole Bushel
Like many people of his time period, George Washington suffered from poor dental care and his teeth suffered as a result. It’s noted that by the time he became president, he only had one of his original teeth left in his mouth.
Though it’s commonly suggested that Washington’s teeth were made from wood, the truth is far more disgusting. Dentures of the time, along with being incredibly ill fitting, were usually created using several different materials, including actual human and animal teeth.
In fact, the pair Washington worse while president were made from hippo ivory, in which actual human teeth were fitted and held in place with gold wire. Of course, since not all the teeth could be taken from a single mouth, this resulted in Washington’s dentures containing oddly shaped, misaligned teeth with huge gaps in them. Unsurprisingly, Washington kept his mouth firmly closed for paintings and portraits. However, even this proved difficult as the dentures were overly bulky and caused his jaw to “bulge out” when he tried to close his mouth.
All of which probably explains why children are told that Washington had wooden teeth. That’s a lot easier to explain than, he had false teeth that were literally made from the recently ripped out teeth of other human beings which were then set in ivory, ivory being the word for the tooth of an animal. It’s no wonder Washington found it hard to close his mouth, how many sets of teeth did this man have in his mouth?
As for the wooden teeth myth, no one is sure where that came from, though historians suggest it probably stemmed from the fact that Washington’s teeth, when worn for a while, would become stained and marked, making them look like wood from afar.