George Washington's False Teeth

George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century>
Robert Darnton
Norton  208 + xvi pp.   £16.95 
ISBN  0 393 05760 7

Flesh in the Age of Reason
Roy Porter
Allen Lane  574 + xviii pp.   £25 
ISBN 0 713 99149 6  

The emperors have finally lost all their clothes. Ours is an age of enforced intimacy with the rich and famous. People not only see the public faces of the great but also learn the secrets of their private lives, their love affairs (preferably scandalous), their finances, and their health as well as all disasters and indignities (preferably comic) that come their way. Sharing this curiosity, history too has become unbuttoned.

Historians now write about the informal as well as the formal. Enticing book titles have already invited readers to study Mr Bligh’s Bad Language (1992), Natasha’s Dance (2002), The Spy’s Eyebrow (1994), and even Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush (2002). Now, extending the dental metaphor, Robert Darnton writes about George Washington’s False Teeth and Roy Porter explores Flesh in the Age of Reason . Only the patchiness of surviving sources prevent us from knowing everything about everyone.

Darnton's arch title is meant to startle his readers to think about the eighteenth century in new ways. Did the first American President have false teeth? Yes he did: at his inauguration in 1789 George Washington had only one tooth left, and relied upon false ones, made variously of elephant ivory, walrus or hippopotamus tusk, and human teeth.

Does this matter? For a start, it makes us realise that Washington, like many of his contemporaries, spent much time not thinking great thoughts but instead suffering from the preoccupying pain of toothache. The runaway rise in consumption of cheap sugar from the West Indian sugar isles was wreacking havoc with dental enamel, in an era before modern dentistry and dental hygienists had come riding to the rescue.

This means, among other things, that our sanitised modern film reconstructions of the eighteenth century are misleading, because we should be looking not at glossy filmstars with gleaming modern teeth but at people with blackened stumps, sunken cheeks and gummy smiles. Napoleon’s Empress Josephine, for instance, was no grinning love goddess. Instead, this famous beauty cultivated an enigmatic smile with closed lips, to hide her dreadful teeth.

In his learned but readable book, Robert Darnton takes George Washington as his starting point but then moves on to investigate his twin themes of similarities and difference between past and present. His eight chapters provide relevant case-histories. These include a meaty essay on the diverse ways that ‘hot news’ was circulated in Paris, even during the era of press censorship. The element of the forbidden added to the excitement of learning the latest scandal. Other chapters explore aspects of Enlightenment thought, including the new cult of happiness, which is linked across time to the ‘happiness’ culture of the modern United States.

Overall, Darnton repeats that the present can learn from the past. But it should do that by understanding the differences that time generates, as well as the similarities – and these differences/similarities should be understood not separately but both at once.

Very much the same underlying message can be detected in Roy Porter’s study of the human body. It is, sadly, a posthumous publication. Moreover, Roy Porter’s sudden death meant that his incomplete references had to be excluded, so that his sources cannot be checked and, if need be, challenged by others. Despite that drawback, he provides a sparkling introduction to the ‘too too solid flesh’ of the human physique in history.

Roy Porter sets his theme in long-term context and then focuses upon change in the eighteenth century. His style has a somewhat scatter-gun effect but there is something for everyone as he progresses. The ideal of the body beautiful is contrasted with the reality of the battered, bulging, diseased, ageing, and, yes, often toothless bodies of real humans.

His central argument is that the rise of ‘modern individualism’ has also meant the rise of a very contemporary preoccupation with the individual body. No longer was human flesh merely the transient container of the much more precious immortal soul. Instead, the concept of an inner ‘self’ with its own ‘self-consciousness’, in this world, was twinned with a new preoccupation with the individual body, also very much in the here and now.

To establish this, Porter probes both the general context and specific examples. New scientific discoveries encouraged admiration for ‘the Wonders of the Human Frame’, as The Spectator declared in the early eighteenth century. And the journal encouraged its readers to exercise every morning for an hour – shades of modern health manuals – and to exercise the mind as well.

Bodily histories of some eighteenth-century literary stars, however, remind us that good advice is easier to read than to heed. Dr Johnson was overweight and suffered from chronic bronchitis, gout and dropsy, as well as nervous tics and compulsive gesticulations. No wonder that he often felt depressed, had difficulties in concentrating, and worried about going mad. Edward Gibbon, the great historian, was also no Adonis. He suffered from gout, exacerbated by heavy drinking, and, in later years, he was troubled by a huge hydrocele or tumorous swelling within his scrotum, that impeded his urination and made him smell unpleasantly (as others reported).

So widely does Porter range that it is rather a surprise when he suggests, finally, that the later eighteenth century constituted a key turning point. The last body-history is that of Lord Byron. He appears as the first modern fitness fanatic, always exercising, dieting, and fretting about his appearance. Luckily for Byron the dandy, he kept his good white teeth. Yet Roy Porter also reminds us that social transformation rarely happens neatly at one single moment in time. There are continuities in the history of the flesh, as well as changes.

As both these stimulating books show, unbuttoned history is fascinating to read but not so easy to pin down conclusively. Linking private with public lives makes for a richer but also a more complex picture. But readers do get to know all about their emperors unclothed.

  •  Penelope Corfield is the author of Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700 - 1850 (Routledge, 1999).
Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week