Men volunteering for the Union army in the Civil War were required to pass a physical. Those lacking at least six opposing upper and lower front teeth were rejected. After all, how could one bite off the end of the powder cartridges used with muzzle loading rifles without them? Even with this minimum stipulation, toothbrushes were not standard issue.
Dentistry was not unheard of prior to the Civil War. Entrepreneurial dental surgeons sprang up at least two decades before and the American Dental Association was officially established in 1859. But there was no Union dental service (ironically, the Confederacy did start one). Dental health actually became worse as the period saw an increased use of refined sugars in foods and greater consumption of fresh, not salted, meats. The rough terrain and occasional Minié ball to the jowls didn’t help matters.
A Dr. Samuel Stockton White met with President Abraham Lincoln to tout his new invention, SS White Tooth Powder. Not much came of the meeting but the powder did make its way to some soldiers. Most soldiers made due by wiping their teeth with any handy rag, salt, their finger, or leaves. Chewing sticks, actual green twigs from dogwood, olive, walnut, cherry, apple, or birch, could be chewed until the fibers became soft and spread.
Of course, some soldiers did have actual toothbrushes. These were hand-carved from wood or cow bone with coarse boar hairs inserted into carefully drilled holes. The boar hairs quickly wore down with use, so it was a constant battle to find replacements.
Overall, the state of most soldiers’ dentition was so bad that the term toothbrush could very well have been accurately described – for a single tooth.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.