The Color of Teeth
Fashions regarding teeth across the globe seem to have gone from one extreme to another-literally! Today, a gleaming, snowy white smile is preferred, however in the past; it was acceptable- even attractive- to have black teeth in certain cultures.
For the Romans, a bright smile was all the rage. However, if your teeth weren’t white enough naturally, you could always bleach them.“Egnatius, because he has snow-white teeth, smiles all the time,” grumbled the poet, Catullus, spitefully about a Spanish acquaintance. However, this sparkling smile was by no means natural. “The fact that your teeth are so polished,” Catullus continued,” just shows you’re the more full of piss.” This barbed remark was a reference to the fact that, like many other Romans, Egnatius bleached his teeth with urine. The Romans recognized that the ammonia in urine was useful in removing stains. It was already used to wash clothes which is why fulleries collected it, leaving barrels on the pavement for the public to use if they needed to relieve themselves. Presumably, those wanting to use it to clean their teeth supplied their own.
Meanwhile, across the globe and several centuries later, Japan was taking quite the opposite view of teeth. Up until the nineteenth century, the practice of Onaguro– the tradition of dying teeth black was widespread amongst the Japanese aristocracy. At their coming of age, upper-class girls would have their teeth blackened with a concoction called fushiko powder. This mixture was made from ground gallnut, acetic acid, and iron. It resulted in a shiny black lacquer that coated the teeth that the Japanese regarded as highly attractive.
However, onaguro’s attraction did not just lie in its appearance. For it also had health benefits. It prevented tooth decay, cavities, and periodontitis by providing a protective layer over the teeth and gums. However, the practice was banned by the Japanese government in the 1870s as part of a move to modernize nineteenth-century Japan.
Black teeth were equally in vogue in Elizabethan England- but not for health reasons. The increased diversity of foodstuffs available through trade introduced sugar to Elizabethan high society – and how they loved it! Sugar banquets became a favorite elite pastime. An unfortunate byproduct of this new love affair, however, was increased tooth decay. However, since only the very wealthy could afford sugar, blackened teeth became a way of announcing your status. Some people with perfectly healthy teeth would even darken theirs artificially to make it appear they could afford to dine on sugar daily.