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Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Mouth of Wood?

One of the most popular myths surrounding the life and legacy of George Washington has to do with his mouth. We've all heard the stories of Washington's infamous wooden teeth. The story is as mythical and popular as are the stories of the cherry tree and the silver dollar. Of course we can rest assured that George Washington never had wooden teeth. As one Washington biographer put it, "everyone knows what happens to a toothpick if left in your mouth."

In reality, Washington's teeth were a combination of gold, pieces of ivory, lead, human and animal teeth. Recent laser scans of George Washington's teeth have uncovered that most of the ivory used originated from a hippopotamus. Joseph Ellis states that they look less like teeth and more like a medieval torture device.

So where did the wooden teeth story come from?

The answer is actually quite simple. Upon completing their portraits, several Washington artists recalled the decrepit nature of Washington's oral hygiene. In an effort to obscure the unsavory truth, these same artists concocted the myth of George Washington's wooden teeth. After all, this sounds a lot cleaner and dignified than the truth.

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