I’m suppressing the urge to write, “You can really sink your teeth into this article,” etc. - Jonah
Teeth - Reenacting's Last Authenticity Frontier
By Jeff Hendershott
Now, really, in Civil War's heated exchanges about authenticity, when have you ever heard anyone bring up the issue of mid-19th teeth? Sure, as most of us know, one of the requirements of soldiership in the Federal Army was that an individual had to have at least their front teeth to be able to bite and rip open that ever-important cartridge. Useless indeed would be the toothless soldier who tried to execute this vital movement in the midst of battle and end up biting on air. I don't know if Confederate soldiers needed front teeth. (And, no, you won't get any "redneck" jokes from me, despite the temptation).
I have only done cursory research on the condition of early American and mid-19th Century tooth care. In this "Information Age," when someone has certainly had to do so, the findings would probably not lend itself to pleasant reading. I'm not particularly thrilled to find out my ancestors were in dire need of dentures.
But I do know that they didn't have the prevention, much less the level of treatment methods we now enjoy.
Little is probably known about
our founding father's generation when it comes to teeth, although I sometimes
marvel at the skulls found during excavation digs at , say, Jamestown (some
seemed to have a full set of teeth). We do know that Mr. George
Washington - the hero of the Revolutionary War and the founder of our great nation - was a snaggle tooth. Given the fact that were he alive today, his smile would cause great laughter without proper treatment and dentures. Imagine Mr. Washington giving the State of the Union Address with teeth that would embarrass cousin Jethro Bodine! But it didn't stop him from being the steadfast general who determined to whip the British, and it didn't stop him from becoming our first chief executive whom we revere.
That was one of my criticisms of the A&E movie "The Crossing." It remains one of my favorite historical movies ever, but hey, what were they thinking casting Jeff Daniels in the role of George W? No way did George have the set of Hollywierd teeth that Daniels has! A little imagination from the makeup department would have done the trick.
What does this have to do with Civil War reenacting?
Personally, I've seen only one
photograph of a Civil War soldier who's smile exposed a set of choppers that
any dentist would approve of today. In fact, it's the only smile
featuring teeth from that period I've ever seen! Historical rumor has it
that Lincoln had his own problems between the cheek and gum. Is that why
soldiers and others did not smile in photographs? I think I remember
reading that theory somewhere. I'll leave that
to bigger research minds than I posses.
But the assumption is that most Civil War soldiers had some pretty nasty looking teeth. It only stands to reason, really. The coffee, the tobacco and hardtack consumed in great quantities could not have possibly been neutralized by the "tooth powder" they supposedly used. This was also a time when America was basically a rural country. Hard to feature a dentist office in every locality or crossroad. In short, I assume many soldiers, while maintaining their front teeth, were not in the best condition in terms of oral health when they enlisted.
So, I recommend that Civil War reenactors, Revy War and other early period reenactors for that matter, experiment with what we call "Bubba Teeth." You've seen them. In fact, their popularity has grown to the point that lately, they have been passed out as Halloween treats and door prizes at school fund-raisers. Some "gag gift" companies even have a complete line to fit your taste. I came across one on-line supplier of what my friends and I call "zit teeth" who had many choices available for the discriminating shopper. For example, you had your choice of many different styles of rotten teeth, like Jethro, Smokin’ Joe, Snaggle Toof, Big Cletus, and of course the old stand-by, Original Bubba Teeth.
Pop one of these into your mouth at your next event and gauge the reaction. You can say "Hey, teeth were in miserable shape back then, and I'm just enhancing my impression!" I wouldn't expect too many takers for the Saturday night ball, however (no one said authenticity would always be pretty).
You ever seen a "hard-core" wearing a set of "Jethro's" or "Smokin Joe's?" Think of the crap you can rub into their faces! "O.K., Mr.Hardcore, top this impression!"
What could happen, and probably would, is that the sutler industry would quickly catch on. And why not? Bubba Teeth are not that expensive, and it would be a nice touch to finish off the impression you've worked so hard to prefect. Reenactors love to purchase haversack stuffers, and this could be the most practical sutler item since the gum blanket!
Now, let's not take this beyond
the point of logic. I'd submit that not everyone who toted a musket
during the Civil War had rotten teeth. The point here is that you must
overzealous regimental commander who writes into the company by-laws, "all recruits must have in their impression their choice of company approved fake rotten teeth within a year…" First, we need less mandates in what is after all a hobby. Second, having a regiment of 30 guys all outfitted with rotten teeth, from the captain down to the drummer boy, would most likely be historically incorrect. You could trade off, you know, some guys wearing them at an event, then rotating at the next. But for sanitary reasons, it would be best for every man just to keep their own set of Big Cletus choppers handy in their haversack. Trading and sharing is not recommended in this "infectious disease aware" society.
And what a great
stocking-stuffer for Christmas! Hey, reenactors like to get stuff
relating to their impression. Just drop a hint to the wife and who knows!
Certainly, more research is needed, but I think I'm on to something here.
Mr. Hendershott (shown above) is the proud owner of three sets of "Bubba Teeth,". The most recent addition to his collection is "Uncle Pot's Rots."
In my 2003 article “The Shock of Authenticity” I identified the PBS series Clarissa as being especially notable for using yellowed teeth. It added much to the general impression given by the 18th C. prostitutes. It just sort of gave the production that little needed shove over the top, so to speak.
I applaud Mr. Hendershott’s dedication to authenticity.
Well, okay, I really don’t; I just think it would be hilarious to see a bunch of reenactors walking around smiling at each other with teeth that look like old tombstones.
Dr. Bukk has been the primary provider of what we might call “historically accurate” teeth, and has been on the web a number of years. A good starting point or a one-stop shop, depending upon how nit-picky Hardcores might get. (I can see the future Camp Chase Gazette article now: “The tint of the Dr. Bukk’s is not in accordance with the grayscale spectrograph color simulations in the enlargements of period daguerreotypes we have inspected. Dr. Bukk’s colors center roughly around Pantone 113. A hue of Pantone 115 would be more period correct for an Eastern Theater mid-to-late war set of teeth,” etc.)