July is the season of barbecues and coolers full of watermelon and supermarket-brand soda. In the United States, at least, it all happens in the service of the nation’s birthday. On the 4th day of this month, Americans celebrate 236 years of independence from their British oppressors, who wanted them to pay taxes on stamps or spell the word “color” with an extra ‘u’ or something. But, as leading political figures occasionally remind us, a lot of what we think we know about the nation’s Founding Fathers is actually a load of hooey. Let Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings give you liberty from all the misinformation before you run for office yourself and make one of these red-white-and-bloopers.
Independence Myth #2: George Washington Had Wooden Teeth.
The oft-repeated story that the Father of His Country had to contend with a mouthful of ill-fitting wooden teeth is, unfortunately, exactly as accurate as most of the other stuff we know about our first president: that he told the truth about the cherry tree, that he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac, all that stuff.
It’s true that some of the earliest false teeth in both Europe and Asia were made from hardwoods, and that George Washington had toothaches and other dental problems his whole life despite being ahead of his time as a conscientious daily brusher. By the time he was in his twenties, Washington was already losing his teeth, and when he was inaugurated as president in 1789, he only had one of his own teeth left. Being a wealthy man and a national hero, Washington consulted with the best dentists in the land, but never found a set he was completely happy with.
Three pairs of Washington’s dentures still survive, at Mount Vernon, the New York Academy of Medicine, and Baltimore’s National Museum of Dentistry, respectively. They’re made of all manner of things—gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, actual extracted horse and donkey and human teeth—but no wood. The top half of the Baltimore sent was lent to the Smithsonian for a bicentennial exhibit in 1976, but mysteriously vanished, presumably sold for their gold content. See, if they’d been made of wood, that kind of thing never would have happened.
Quick Quiz: In 1946, who was given a pair of dentures from a U.S. military hospital that, unbeknownst to him, had the words “Remember Pearl Harbor” engraved on them in Morse code?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Public domain photo from the Library of Congress.