This set of dentures is fitted with real human teeth, extracted from the mouths of the dead.
Before modern dentistry, corpses were the best source of replacement teeth, and complete sets of healthy teeth were very valuable. False teeth could be carved from hippopotamus, walrus, or elephant ivory, but these looked less real and rotted more quickly than human teeth. After a major battle like Waterloo scavengers would scour the field with pliers, ready to loot the mouths of dead soldiers.
Poor dental hygiene and the popularity of sugar rotted the teeth of many Europeans, creating huge demand that made tooth robbing a lucrative business. The human teeth in this set of dentures would have been more valuable than the ivory base on which they are mounted. One British plunderer, a man named Butler, openly wished for a huge battle, boasting “there’ll be no want of teeth, I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.”
Rather than conceal their grisly sources, dentists cheerfully advertised their dentures as “Waterloo teeth” or “Waterloo ivory”. These were guaranteed to have come from young, healthy soldiers, killed in the prime of life, rather than from rotting corpses dug up by grave robbers, or executed criminals.
Fifty years later, dental catalogues still advertised the teeth of freshly killed soldiers as “Waterloo teeth”. These came from the battlefields of the American Civil War (1860-65), shipped across the Atlantic to fill the mouths of toothless Europeans.
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This object is in the collection of Victoria Gallery and Museum