For centuries, plaque was removed by brute force
Tartar and plaque have long been the enemies of dentists and oral hygienists. These days, they are removed by pressure cleaners or other modern tools, and the process is usually quick, efficient and, though uncomfortable, largely painless. In the 18th century, however, things were different. By this point, dentists had recognised the importance of keeping teeth clean of tartar and plaque, but they lacked the sophistication to carry out such treatments without resorting to brute strength.
In his arsenal, a dentist in Enlightenment-era Europe would have had a kit of âdescaling instruments’. These varied in size, though the design was the same. With a sharp point at one end and a handle, usually made of ivory or mother of pearl or, if the dentist was not so rich and successful yet, of wood, these were used to scrape away plaque deposits. Like many dental instruments of the time, they looked more like woodworking tools than medical implements – and they were just as subtle. Since most patients would have had poor dental hygiene in general, teeth could be loose and gums sore, making the whole process even more painful.
According to some historians, some people might have had descaling instruments of their own and done their own teeth cleaning. However, given that dental hygiene was really only the preserve of the upper classes and the cost of such tools, it’s likely only the richest members of society were able to go plaque-free.