Last night's Evening News reported on forensic evidence that George Washington may not have looked the way we think he did – and mentioned that his legendary wooden teeth were just a myth.
That prompted this e-mail from a concerned viewer:
During your segment about George Washington…you said that the claim of Washington's having had wooden false teeth was not true. However, in the summer of 1970, my children and I toured Mount Vernon and its little museum and displayed there was a set of his wooden chompers, supposedly stained by so much Madera wine. I think it unlikely that the museum conservator would mislead the public. Please check your facts and, if the facts warrant as I suspect they will, please issue a correction.We paid a visit to the Mt. Vernon website, which more or less takes a bite out of that argument:
Is it true that George Washington wore wooden teeth?
The answer is: No. George Washington did have false teeth, but they were not made of wood. Instead they were made of cow's teeth, human teeth, and elephant ivory set in a lead base with springs that allowed him to open and close his mouth. As you can imagine, they were very uncomfortable! They also distorted the shape of his mouth.
Washington had several different sets of dentures, only one of which is still complete -- and the complete set is here at Mount Vernon. Our set is made from human & cow teeth and elephant ivory, set in a lead base, with heavy metal springs. Because of the way they would have fit within his mouth, we do not believe that Washington wore this set when eating or talking. They were probably entirely "ornamental," for occasions like making silent ceremonial appearances or having his portrait painted.
He also owned other, more "functional" dentures, which could have been worn while eating or talking.
During the last ten years of Washington's life (1789-1799), a highly respected New York dentist, Dr. John Greenwood, made for the president at least two complete denture sets and several partial sets. In addition, in 1796 a man named James Gardette made Washington a set of dentures from hippopotamus ivory.
UPDATE: The good folks at Mount Vernon took the time to send us a picture of the choppers that belonged to the Father of Our Country.
(Mount Vernon Ladies Association)
Wasn't that nice of them?