This Exhibition Has Real Bite

Posted June 7, 2018 8:18 p.m. EDT

LONDON — Everyone has them. Or if they don’t, they wish they did. “Teeth,” a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, offers both a brief history of dentistry — making the visitor rejoice at living in the 21st century — and an often-surprising view of the feelings people harbor about their teeth.

The Wellcome Collection is a museum that explores the crossover between medicine and the arts. In “Teeth,” there are etchings and paintings of early tooth-pullers and barber-surgeons; Napoleon’s silver-handled toothbrush; aluminum dentures crafted from the hull of a Japanese fighter plane; frightening-looking drills; and letters to the tooth fairy. (“Dear Tooth Fairy, sorry about this but I swallowed my tooth instead of giving it to you but please can I have some monny?”)

James Peto, a curator of the exhibition, said that the idea came from a book, “The Smile Stealers” by Richard Barnett. As the objects were assembled, he said, two central themes emerged. “It became clear that inequality in access to dental care has been determined by wealth and poverty, and that continues to be an issue,” he said, adding, “It has always been unclear whether health or aesthetics are the motivation for spending time and money on our teeth.”

In a conversation that roved from the origins of dentistry in the early 18th century to the hip-hop-inspired fashion for grillz, Peto offered some insight into some of the most curious items in the show, which runs through Sept. 16. Here are edited extracts.

Mayan tooth inlaid with jade

This example dates from A.D. 500 to 1000 and is a good example of the Mayan skill at drilling holes in teeth, presumably without touching the gum, and setting in precious stones. They used a paste, presumably made of some kind of plant resin thickened with ground bone. It must have been very durable: There are skulls with complete sets of highly decorated teeth.

We don’t know why the Mayans were so skilled at this. Odder still is that it is not thought to be associated with status or nobility; almost anybody might have elaborate tooth work. The assumption is that it involved some kind of ritual.

Carved wooden figure of St. Apollonia

This statue, which dates from around the second half of the 19th century, shows poor St. Apollonia, a Christian from Alexandria, Egypt, who was martyred at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 249. In the attempt to get her to renounce her faith, her teeth were shattered and pulled out. She willingly jumped into a fire rather than concede.

She is now considered the patron saint of dental diseases, and various churches across Europe have claimed to have some of her teeth. If you have a child who suffers from teething pain, there are churches in France, Portugal and Eastern Europe where they rub one of St. Apollonia’s supposed teeth on the gums to relieve the pain.

Carved ivory upper and lower dentures (18th century)

The first dentures were made of hippopotamus ivory, which was thought to be more durable. They were very expensive, because they had to be handcarved to fit each individual mouth, and they lasted only about three years. Eventually, people discovered that teeth could be made from porcelain, which was easier to work with, and that it was possible to make partial dentures that could be tied to other teeth.

All of these must have been incredibly uncomfortable. They were very difficult to hold in place, and the solution was adding a heavy spring. George Washington had dentures, and it is often said that he probably looks so uncomfortable on the dollar bill because he was wearing his dentures.

“A Woman Covers Her Eyes as She Steals the Tooth of a Hanged Man” by Goya

There was a huge trade in human teeth: The next evolution in dentures was when people started using human teeth implanted in an ivory gum. These were often called Waterloo teeth — apparently the 50,000 corpses on the field after the Battle of Waterloo were stripped of their teeth in 24 hours.

This Goya etching speaks of the trade in stealing teeth, but here I think the artist is referring to the theft of teeth for use in witchcraft and sorcery.

“Blacksmith Removing Tooth” (1780)

Those at the bottom of the economic ladder had little resort but the local blacksmith if they needed a tooth removed. One step up was the barber-surgeon, and a step up from him was the itinerant tooth puller — although he really earned his money from the spectacle of pulling out teeth in front of a crowd.

Woman’s skull with dental bridge (1870)

This skull comes from the extraordinary collection of skeletons — some 20,000 — held by the Museum of London. We know it belonged to Charlotte Bampton Taylor, as she was buried in a crypt, and her coffin had a nameplate. She had a “Waterloo tooth” — a real human tooth held in place by a wire — so we can presume she was able to afford some expensive dentistry.

Treadle drill

This drill is from the 1890s, but the first such apparatus was the bow drill in the early 19th century. The egg whisk-style drill came along in 1840, but the primary disadvantage, apart from general clunkiness and slowness, was that it required the use of two hands. The breakthrough was the Harrington clockwork drill from 1864. You wind it up and let it go, so it didn’t last very long.

Then, in 1871, James Morrison invented a drill powered by a foot pedal, much like a sewing machine. It made about 2,000 revolutions a minute (A modern electric drill makes about 500,000).

British dentists in the 1970s, when power outages were a regular occurrence, might have kept an old treadle drill in the cupboard to add fillings without using electricity.

— “Phantom head” with real teeth

This is an early and crude example of what dental students still use to learn their craft. The student who used this head probably had to find the teeth.

— Barber-surgeon chair

This chair, which dates from the 19th century, speaks of restraint because of the way it holds the head in place. Before dentistry became a sophisticated medical field, it was a brutal job that required a lot of strength, as many people had to be held in place while their teeth were removed. Dentists were at the bottom of the medical ladder. Most of them probably did their teeth pulling with the patient on the floor and the barber-surgeon, as they were first called, holding the head or kneeling on the chest for better leverage.

— Set of 19th-century dental instruments

This is a very high-end object that probably worked only as an advertisement for a dentist. It was quite common to have a very elaborate presentation set of tools with ivory handles, and then a layer of more practical ones underneath for actual dentistry.

People were beginning to understand dental hygiene: The idea of looking after your teeth really comes along in the 19th century. Napoleon apparently took good care of his teeth, using a tongue scraper of the kind we see here, as well as a toothbrush.

— “4 Tons of Children’s Teeth Extracted Each Year”

This poster dates from the early 1960s, and gives an idea of how rudimentary the idea of dental hygiene was in most British households at the time. There’s still room for improvement: The British Dental Association says that the figure is now around 1 ton.

— “Patient toothbrushes — Hudson River State Hospital”

This photograph is from a series by Christopher Payne, who took pictures at abandoned mental hospitals across the United States. These were left behind after the New York state facility was closed in the early 2000s. Each toothbrush is identical, but for a name, and the image seems like a powerful comment on identity: A toothbrush is a very personal thing, and the names here are so diverse — East European, Hispanic, Irish, Italian. It’s poignant because it’s so institutional.

— Contemporary grillz

U.S. hip-hop culture has created an entire industry of tooth decoration. There are shops and businesses that decorate existing teeth; implant new teeth with different materials, like gold or diamonds; or make a decorative set to fit over existing teeth. Those sets, known as grillz, are what we have here; custom grillz are made it fit perfectly from a mold based on dental impressions. At the cheaper end of the market, there are over-the-counter options. But fair warning: They’re probably as comfortable as the add-on dentures of the 19th century.

“Teeth” is at the Wellcome Collection in London through Sept. 16.