Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Anterior maxillary dentition of a St. Mary?s City woman who overcleaned her teeth. Obsessive cleaning exposed the pulp chambers of some front teeth, which led to abscessing. It also affected the bony sockets of the lower front teeth.  Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution


To clean their teeth, some colonists used abrasives or metal tooth picks to remove bits of food or tartar from between the teeth. Neglect was the norm, but in at least one case, repetitive tooth cleaning caused serious damage.

Scanning electron micrograph of a tooth?s scratched enamel. Using tobacco ash as a tooth cleaner caused scratches because it contains concentrated silica, which is harder than dental enamel. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution


Recipes of the time for tooth whitening and cleaning were acidic and abrasive. They included the use of salt and vinegar, as well as ingredients such as tobacco ashes, rubbed onto teeth with a cloth.