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Florence Cole as a child

Care of teeth in
Victorian and Edwardian Britain

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Everyday 'toothpaste'

In the early 1900s when I was a child growing up on the working class Huxley housing estate of Victorian-style terraces, everyone I knew cleaned their teeth with salt, which was of course mildly abrasive and was also said to kill germs.

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Tooth powder, based on salt and bocarbonate of soda, as used for cleaning teeth in the early 1900s

A tin of EUCRYL tooth powder. The inscription round the edge of the tin reads:

Gets teeth cleaner - keeps teeth whiter

I understand from a retired pharmacist that it was quite common to use twigs of wood as toothbrushes. A twig was cut to expose the soft interior and the outer bark was peeled back slightly. The exposed end was then rubbed onto the teeth, which made it divide into fibres which served as brush bristles. Willow was apparently particularly suitable, although certain other woods could also serve. Presumably the practice was only common in rural areas with easy access to suitable trees.

I suspect that, as often as not, ordinary people did not use toothbrushes at all, particularly in built-up areas. By the time that I was growing up in the 1940s, toothbrushes were bristle set in a wooden handle.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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Commercial tooth powder and toothpaste

I understand that slightly better off people cleaned their teeth with a mixture of salt and bicarbonate of soda, which was known as 'tooth powder'. The bicarbonate of soda would have made the salt slightly frothy. Toothpaste was years away.

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Toothache and tooth decay

Victorian dentist's chair

Dentists' chair. Photographed in Blists Victorian Village.

Treatment for toothache

The treatment for toothache for ordinary people seems to have been to pull out the tooth. My father regularly told the following story, although I am not sure how true it was. He may have been joking. He said that strong thread was tied round the offending tooth with the other end tied round the handle of an open door. Then the door was slammed shut. I suspect this may have happened with children's loose milk teeth in large families where money was scarce. Dentists certainly did exist but were probably used as a last resort.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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False teeth

I shall never forget one day, as a child, when I overheard a local man saying that he cleaned his teeth with Vim. Vim was an abrasive scouring powder used for scouring pans.

Vim scouring powder for scouring pots, pans and metal false teeth, early and mid 1900s

Vim scouring powder.

I thought I would have a go with it - but I only learnt later that he had false teeth made of metal!

Advert for Vim scouring powder, 1943

Advert for Vim scouring powder, photographed from a magazine advert in Dinefwr Park House.

My mouth smarted for days afterwards.

By the 1930s it was not uncommon for people to be so disillusioned with caring for their teeth and with the appearance of their bad teeth that they had them all out in favour of dentures. This of course cost because there was no National Health Service. Some women were actually given this dubious treatment as a 21st birthday present.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.