George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree and carve wooden teeth from it.
Maybe one of the most enduring myths in American history is that George Washington had wooden teeth. It seems to never go away, generation after generation. Well, not only did the first president not have wooden teeth, you could also honestly say that Washington’s bad teeth helped the young United States win the American Revolution. How? You’ll see…
Sometimes described as cold, aloof, unsmiling and formal, George Washington was largely driven in his adult life by his teeth, or lack of them and the resulting pain. As a twenty-first century dentist’s dream, young George had his first tooth pulled at the age of 24 and his lifelong battle with tooth decay, gum disease and tooth pain started from there. Only a few years later, in 1760, Washington’s friend George Mercer noted, “His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.” By the time Washington became president nearly three decades later, he had one bicuspid tooth remaining on the lower left of his jaw.
How did Washington lose his teeth? In his autobiography, John Adams said George himself “…attributed his misfortune to cracking of Walnuts in his Youth….” Sure, that didn’t help any, but Mount Vernon associate curator Laura Simo thinks George Washington’s family genetics was half to blame for his tooth problems. The other half was the dental hygiene of the time.
It’s not that George Washington was sloppy about dental hygiene; it’s just that dental hygiene was practically non-existent in the late eighteenth century. In fact, in some social groups, taking care of your teeth was even considered effeminate or vain. But Washington was very wise about the message an image can send, and knew that in the Continental Congress, and as commander-in-chief and president, he had to look the part of a leader… which meant at least having teeth. Aside from the possible constant pain Washington endured from his bad teeth, he stayed on a constant life quest to (simply said) – have teeth in his mouth. And he paid a lot for professional dental care all through his lifetime. “Payments to dentists and purchases of toothbrushes, teeth scrapers, denture files, toothache medication, and cleaning solutions are also regularly present in Washington’s communications throughout his life.”
Washington’s Most Notable Dentists
Dr. John Baker was the first noteworthy dentist that Washington employed. Baker was an English-trained dentist who set up shop in Williamsburg in 1772 and in fact, “Mr. Baker Surgeon Dentist” (as Washington called him in his diary) may have been the first professionally trained dentist in America.
Baker’s services, however, did not come cheap and Washington’s ledger shows Baker’s charges for the “period between March 1772 and November 1773 amounted to £14.6.” That of course included a prolonged house call to Mount Vernon from Dr. Baker starting on October 13, 1773 and you know how expensive that can be. Baker apparently fitted Washington with a partial denture made of ivory and wired parts of the denture to Washington’s existing teeth. Then, like dominoes, the rubbing of the wire helped to loosen Washington’s other existing teeth and so on and so on. Either way, it was not comfortable at all. It appears, then, Baker moved to Philadelphia and became Washington’s sometimes-dentist during much of the Revolutionary War.
SidebarsGot time for a couple quick tangents?
Washington always tried to keep his tooth problems private. But in 1781, he was informed that a packet of mail and documents had been intercepted by the British. Washington knew that one of the letters inside that packet was a confidential letter Washington had written to Dr. John Baker, his personal dentist at that time, who was in Philadelphia. In the letter Washington was asking if Baker would send a tooth scraper to his headquarters in New Windsor, New York, saying he had “little prospect of being in Philadelph. soon..” After verifying that the intercepted mail was real and not a set-up, the British Army commander in America, Sir Henry Clinton, became convinced that Washington and his army was going to stay put the Hudson Highlands north of New York City. Clinton let his guard down.
Little did Clinton know that just after Washington had written the tooth-scraping letter, both Washington and Rochambeau began planning the Franco-American armies’ movement down to Virginia – down to meet General Cornwallis at Yorktown for the siege that basically ended the Revolutionary War.
Washington had heard that Dr. Le Mayeur had some success at transplanting teeth, a technique best described as taking purchased human teeth (usually from poor people) and jamming the tooth down inside the open socket on a jaw, and then wiring it to the neighboring teeth. Then I think it’s just hoped that the tooth grows in place without benefit of a nerve or root blood supply.
In 1784, Le Mayeur sent Washington a letter touting his success at transplanting teeth into the mouth of Washington’s private secretary, Richard Varick, and a few others who were indebted to him, “by furnishing them with good living teeth in the Room of those which were broken or otherwise decayed,” and that the transplanted teeth “are in a promising state and will be perfectly ferm [firm].” After hearing positive things from Varick himself, Washington became very interested in the transplanting procedure. Washington excitedly wrote back to Varick, “I received great pleasure from the Acct which you have given me of Doctr La Moyeur’s operations on you; and congratulate you very sincerely on the success.”
Following the Revolutionary War, “Doctr. L’Moyer” became a frequent visitor to Mount Vernon through the years 1785 – 1788. During his stays, he may have been attempting tooth transplants on the retired General George. Washington kept some his own teeth in a locked drawer of his Mount Vernon desk and had also just spent 13 shillings apiece to buy nine teeth from “Negroes.”
Conclusion? “Whether he wanted the teeth implanted directly in his mouth or incorporated into dentures, we cannot say… we can deduce that Washington’s dental transplant miscarried, since by the time of his presidential inauguration in 1789, he had only a single working tooth remaining.”
Dr. Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur, although French-born, had been Sir Henry Clinton’s dentist in 1781, when they were both in New York. But one day, Le Mayeur overheard some rude things said about the French alliance with the Americans, so Le Mayeur packed his dental bags and in a snit snuck over to the enemy camp. In this case, he offered his dental services to General George Washington, and Washington accepted. But first, in a move that would seem very contemporary, Washington had a secret background check done on Le Mayeur, “a private investigation of this man’s character and knowledge of his profession.” After passing with flying French colors, it was the start of a long relationship between Washington and Le Mayeur, which also promised the possibility of transplanting real teeth into Washington’s mouth.
Dr. John Greenwood had a dental office in New York City, and that’s where newly-inaugurated President Washington apparently started employing Greenwood to create and repair his dentures. Greenwood had fought in the Revolutionary War and had studied dentistry under none other than Paul Revere – it was a part-time profession for the renowned silversmith. Washington continued to use Greenwood when the new national capital was moved to Philadelphia and the relationship continued into Washington’s retirement. Greenwood is perhaps the best known of Washington’s dentists, but the long-distance relationship made it really hard for Greenwood to get a right fit for Washington’s false teeth. Because of that, apparently Washington sometimes tinkered with his own dentures out of necessity.
Occasionally he sent a letter to Greenwood asking for replacement parts: “Send me some spiral spring, about a foot long, without cutting them, and join to this nearly double that length of gold wire, (little breaking) of a diameter that you judge suitable for me to attach them as customary, to my tooth.” It sounds like in messing with his uncomfortable dentures, Washington would file them down to ease the pain but sometimes wreck them in doing so. Washington wrote Greenwood in a letter dated January 25, 1797, “By filing these parts away (to remedy that evil) it has been one cause of the teeth giving way, having been weakened thereby.” The president complained to Greenwood in the same letter that the existing denture contraption, “causes both upper, & under lip to bulge out, as if swelled.” That “swelled” mouth look is very evident in the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of the same year. Stuart, however, also might have accented the swelled look of Washington’s mouth in the painting because of their volatile relationship. Exaggerated or not, the look of Washington’s lower lip being pushed out by the dentures was (as Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis said in the 1790s) Washington’s most obvious facial feature. But either way, you could see where Washington was coming from if you, too, had to clench your jaws tightly shut to keep a spring-loaded contraption down that didn’t fit inside your mouth.
Earlier Dr. Greenwood had created a lower partial denture and an upper denture for Washington. But the most famous of Washington’s dentures, also created by Greenwood, is the only full set that exists today and is at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. In the photo of the famous false teeth, one can see an open spot in the lower left. That accommodated Washington’s only remaining real tooth in his head by the time he was inaugurated president in 1789. But eventually the tooth decay that plagued Washington so much through his life (along with probably the chafing of the tooth by the denture’s lead base) made even saving that single tooth impossible. So Dr. Greenwood pulled George’s final remaining tooth in 1796 and in a nice gesture, Washington gave the tooth to Greenwood as a gift. We don’t know if it was in lieu of payment, but Greenwood put the tooth inside of a glass locket that hung from his watch chain.
Washington Speaking and Eating in Public
George Washington never really liked speaking in public. Thomas Jefferson, far from being an extroverted public speaker himself, slammed Washington, saying he “had neither copiousness of ideas, nor fluency of words.” Although Washington didn’t have the classical education that Jefferson had, Jefferson also didn’t have a spring-loaded gadget in his mouth that Washington had. Public speaking for Washington was many times awkward, especially in saying words that had a “hiss” or “sh” in them (called “sibilant sound” in phonetic talk).
But possibly Washington’s greatest speaking fear was of a spontaneous, hearty laugh where his unanchored dentures would go flying out of his mouth. “Opening his mouth relaxed the pressure on the curved metal springs connecting the upper and lower dentures, which might cause them to slip out.”  Not the type of image and presence that Washington always strove for as a wealthy land owner, general, president, or statesman.
His dentures also began to dictate what foods Washington could eat. He naturally began to go towards soft foods, which could be chewed delicately by whatever front teeth he had. “Nelly” Custis Lewis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, confirmed that George Washington’s favorite breakfast was sort of mushy pancakes, “hoecakes swimming in butter and honey.” A visitor to Mount Vernon also wrote much the same thing, but this time directly tied Washington’s breakfast in with his dental problems: “Since his retirement he has led a quiet and regular life. He gets up at 5 o’clock in the morning, reads or writes until seven. He breakfasts on tea and caks [cakes] made from maize; because of his teeth he makes slices spread with butter and honey…”
For the whole last decade of Washington’s life, from 1790 to 1799, letters show that Washington and Dr. Greenwood sent boxes of false teeth and dentures back and forth through the mail, somewhat like a modern day amazon.com relationship. A sad example of Washington’s chronic pain early in his final decade was from his diary entry of January 18, 1790: “Monday 18th. Still indisposed with an Aching tooth, and swelled and inflamed Gum.” And the discomfort and embarrassment of bad-fitting dentures still continued eight years after that diary entry, until nearly Washington’s death. In a late December 1798 letter to Greenwood, Washington complained about the new set of false teeth sent to him, saying that they “shoot beyond the gums” and “forces the lip out just under the nose.”
How did the “Wooden Teeth” Myth Get Started?
George Washington never had wooden teeth, nor did anybody of his time. It would have been kind of dumb to make teeth out of wood when better materials were available. Washington’s dentures over the course of his lifetime used materials like human teeth along with bone and ivory from hippopotamus, or “sea horse” as it was called in its day. Ivory from walrus and elephant may also have been used, along with lead, gold metal wire and springs, and brass screws. None of that sounds very comfortable.
It’s hard to say when the wooden teeth myth got started, but historians and forensic dentists possibly know how it got started. Ivory and bone both have hairline fractures in them, which normally can’t be seen. With Washington’s fondness for Madeira wine, a very dark wine, over time the darkness of the wine started to darken the false teeth of the dentures. Then the thin fractures in the bone started to darken even more than the rest of the tooth, making the lines look like the grain in a piece of wood “that misled later observers.”
In fact, (just as would happen today with the dentist scolding the patient), in a December 1798 letter to Washington, Dr. Greenwood scolded Washington: “… the sett you sent me from Philadelphia which when I received was very black, occasioned either by your soaking them in port wine, or by your drinking it.”
But also, just like today, one finds when reading the same original letter from Dr. Greenwood, he has added a “P.S.” at the very bottom of the page that says, “Sir, the additional charge is fifteen dollars.”
Thanks to Melissa Wood, Laura Simo, and Mary V. Thompson, research historians at The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, for their research assistance, guidance, and source material on this article.
/// Featured Image at Top: George Washington’s dentures. Courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
 Graeme Mercer Adam, et. al., George Washington: a character sketch (Milwaukee, WI: H.G. Campbell Publishing Co., 1903), 37; George Mercer to a friend, 1760, quoted in The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Volume 1, edited by W.W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, and others (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1988), 192n-193n; also in Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 65-66.  John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 volumes, edited by L. H. Butterfield, and others (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 3:280; my thanks to Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon, for this citation source.  Colonial Williamsburg: audio podcast between Harmony Hunter and Laura Simo, February 20, 2012, “The Wooden Teeth That Weren’t”; http://podcast.history.org/2012/02/20/the-wooden-teeth/ (accessed October 22, 2014).  Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens: online article: http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-man-the-myth/the-trouble-with-teeth/ (accessed October 21, 2014).  “[Diary entry: 13 October 1773],” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-03-02-0003-0020-0013 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 3, 1 January 1771–5 November 1781, ed. Donald Jackson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978, p. 209. (accessed October 26, 2014).  Frank E. Grizzard Jr., George Washington: A Biographical Companion (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2002), 103.  George Washington to Dr. Baker, May 29, 1781, New Windsor; from the Gold Star Collection of the Clements Library; http://clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/spies/letter-1781may29.html ; (accessed October 24, 2014).  Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York, the Penguin Press, 2010), 438; also James Thomas Flexner, George Washington (New York City: Little, Brown and Company, 1965), 2:500.  “To George Washington from Jean Le Mayeur, 20 January 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0044 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 1, 1 January 1784 – 17 July 1784, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 63–64; (accessed October 26, 2014).  “From George Washington to Richard Varick, 22 February 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0110 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 1, 1 January 1784 – 17 July 1784, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 148–149; (accessed October 26, 2014).  “September ,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-04-02-0002-0009 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 4, 1 September 1784 – 30 June 1786, ed. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 189–200; (accessed October 26, 2014).  Selling of teeth by the poor and “Negroes” back then was akin to homeless people selling their blood today. Chernow, Washington: A Life, 438; also from Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 154.  Chernow, Washington: A Life, 438-439.  George Washington to John Greenwood, January 20, 1797, Philadelphia; The writings of George Washington, from the original manuscript sources, vol. 35, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/washington/; also from George Washington, Writings, John Rodehamel, ed. (New York: Library of America, 1997), 986.  “From George Washington to John Greenwood, 25 January 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00220 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: “this is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington. It is not an authoritative final version”; (accessed October 26, 2014).  “From George Washington to John Greenwood, 25 January 1797,” Founders Online.  To say it mildly, Stuart and Washington did not get along. Washington did not like to sit still and be stared at for hours at a time by any painter. But Stuart, who felt painters were superior to everyone else, engaged his subjects with “showy and outrageous talk.” Washington hated that even more and the two aimed barbed words at each other during their sittings. “But it may well be that Stuart, who angrily used General Knox’s portrait as the door of his pigsty, was motivated in his relationship with Washington also by rage. No other man’s rage did Washington’s historical image more harm.” James Thomas Flexner, Washington – The Indispensable Man (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1974), 339-340.  This lower denture is in the National Museum of Dentistry, Baltimore, MD; another lower jaw denture is at the New York Academy of Medicine.  This upper denture is on display at the National Museum of American History – Smithsonian Institution.  This famous full denture set came to light in approximately 1820, according to Mount Vernon associate curator Laura Simo. The dentures were inside a studded packing crate (marked #34) along with other clothing worn by George and Martha Washington. The packing crate and materials was donated by Martha Washington’s oldest granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law (1776-1831). http://www.c-span.org/video/?295393-1/mount-vernon-collections-storage-area (accessed October 24, 2014).  Dr. Greenwood’s locket of Washington’s last tooth is at the Fraunces Tavern Museum of the New York State Sons of the Revolution in New York City.  Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings, ed., Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball (London: Cambridge University Press, 1999); 40.  Chernow, Washington: A Life, 609.  “Nelly” Custis (Lewis), quoted in Dining With the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertainment, and Hospitality From Mount Vernon (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2011), 38, also in http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/hoecakes-and-honey/ (accessed October 24, 2014).  Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, entry for June 5, 1798, in Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels Through America in 1797-1799, 1805, with some further account of life in New Jersey, translated and edited by Metchie J. E. Budka (Elizabeth, NJ: Published as Volume XIV in the Collections of The New Jersey Historical Society at Newark by The Grassman Publishing Company, 1965), 102-103; my thanks to Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon, for this citation source.  “[Diary entry: 18 January 1790],” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-06-02-0001-0001-0018 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 6, 1 January 1790 – 13 December 1799, ed. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979), 9; (accessed October 26, 2014).  George Washington to John Greenwood, December 7, 1798, W.W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series, 4 vols. (Charlottesville, VA., 1998-1999), 3:245.  “It was finally necessary to have them extracted from one jaw and replaced with a set of artificial teeth made of ‘seahorse’ (hippopotamus) ivory.” New York, March 1790; Stephen Decatur Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington from the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear Esquire, His Secretary (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1933), 124.  http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/wooden-teeth-myth/ (accessed October 24, 2014).  John Greenwood to George Washington, New York, December 28, 1798; from the Collection of Mr. William Alexander Smith; Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, vol. XVI, ed. Martha J. Lamb (New York City: Historical Publication Company, 1886), 294.  John Greenwood to George Washington, New York, December 28, 1798; from the Collection of Mr. William Alexander Smith; Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, vol. XVI, ed. Martha J. Lamb, (New York City: Historical Publication Company, 1886), 295.