The Battle of Waterloo was a great day for dentists!
In 18th and 19th century England, the upper classes were living the good life. One of their biggest vices was sugar, imported from the Caribbean. But not only did the trade in sugar make many obscenely rich – albeit on the back of other people’s misery – it also made the teeth of upper-class gentlemen and ladies fall out. As a result, dentists were also getting rich, especially those who specialized in false teeth.
In most cases, dentures consisted of an ivory plate fitted with real human teeth. By the 1780s, such dentures were so popular that there was a genuine shortage of teeth to use in their production. And, of course, this led to exploitation. Poor people would sell their teeth. They would seek out backstreet ‘dentists’ (often nothing more than butchers or ironmongers) and have their front teeth extracted without any medication. They would be rewarded a relatively paltry sum for their troubles, but still, desperate times led to desperate measures being taken. But still, this wasn’t enough to satisfy demand.
Then, in 1815, the British met Napoleon’s army on the battlefield of Waterloo in Belgium. The battle was hugely significant, and hugely bloody. Thousands of English, French and Prussian soldiers lost their lives as Wellington led his troops to victory. And once the battle was over, the looting of the bodies began. Both surviving troops keen to supplement their poor pay, as well as enterprising locals, took pliers to the battlefield and pulled out as many teeth as they could. And that was just the beginning of the gruesome enterprise.
The looters would then sort the teeth out. They would find teeth of similar size and colour and make complete sets, which they would then string together. These sets of teeth would be boiled and the roots chopped off. Only then they would be sold to specialist dentists in London or Paris, to be made into dentures and fitted into the mouths of the wealthy elite.