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(Patriotic) Document Friday: Can You Send Me One of Your Scrapers?

July 2, 2010

Washington at Dorchester Heights by Emanuel Leutze

It wasn’t easy to pick a patriotic document for the July Fourth weekend.  I decided not to do the Declaration of Independence because, apparently, 26 percent of Americans don’t know who we actually declared independence from.  I thought about the Constitution, but was afraid my post would  end up as just another passionate defense of whatever I imagined the document said.  I looked at docs on the Tea Act, the Stamp Act, the Molasses Act,  the Wool Act, the Iron Act, the Quartering Act, and even the Hat Act –but none struck my fancy.

Finally I found it.  A letter from our fifteenth President George Washington (no that was not a typo) to Doctor Baker in Philadelphia.   See if you can decipher Washington’s script by yourself before reading the transcription.  I think his handwriting is actually very neat.

Below’s the transcription kindly provided by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, which houses the document.

New Windsor May 29, 1781


A day or two ago I requested Col. Harrison to apply to you for a pair of Pincers to fasten the wire of my teeth. –I hope you furnished him with them.– I now wish you would send me one of your scrapers / as my teeth stand in need of cleaning, and I have little prospect of being in Philadelph. soon.– It will come very safe by the Post– & in return, the money shall be sent so soon as I know the cost of it.–

I am Sir Y Very H Serv [Your Very Humble Servant]

G. Washington

There you have it.  On the verge of orchestrating perhaps the greatest military upset in history, George Washington had to worry about denture problems.  And unlike Stan McChrystal, he didn’t have any Bud Light Lime to take the edge off.

According to the Clements Library, this letter never actually made it to Washington’s dentist.  It was captured by the British and may have tipped the off to the General’s whereabouts.  Another example of the importance of intelligence during war.

The only surviving complete set of George Washington’s dentures, ca. 1790-1799. From Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Washington began losing his teeth when he was twenty-two.  When he was inaugurated as president in 1789 he had only one genuine tooth in his mouth. He had at least five sets of dentures made for him. But contrary to popular belief, Washington’s dentures were not wooden.  Way grosser.  They set he wore as president was made with hippo ivory, elephant ivory, gold, steel, wood, human teeth, horse teeth, and donkey teeth. Nom. Nom. Nom.

By Gilbert Stuart in 1797. Does he look Relaxed?

He corresponded frequently with dentists in his attempts to improve his orthodontic situation, including one complaint that his dentures “were forcing his lips out.”  It’s rumored that the artist Gilbert Stuart shoved cotton in Washington’s lips to make his mouth look less abnormal in his 1797 portrait of the president.  Even on today’s dollar bill, his jaw looks puffy.  Washington’s mouth problems probably affected his presidency.  It’s said that he did not give his second inaugural address due to “dental discomfort.”

After you watch the fireworks and eat your corn on the cob, don’t forget to brush your teeth.

(To be fair, Washington actually did have good dental hygiene before he lost his teeth.  He brushed and used mouthwash daily.  One historian speculates that his frequent doses of mercury chloride contributed to his tooth decay.  John Adams, on the other hand, alleged that Washington’s habit of using his teeth to crack Brazil nuts was to blame.)

One Comment
  1. Sol permalink
    July 3, 2010 12:48 pm

    In honor of July 4th and in solidarity with George Washington, I will not brush my teeth until I visit Philadelphia.

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