A Point Of View: Mouthing off

Young woman brushing her teeth in the 1930s

Modern society is on the hunt for better teeth, but what is it that makes our pearly whites so alluring, asks Sarah Dunant.

As southern Europe cools down after its sizzling summer, the streets of Florence where I work part of the year have started to buzz with new arrivals out of the West: young men and women - though girls always outnumber the boys - on semester from American universities, eager to experience the city's artistic past and its nightlife present.

The girls tend to travel in chattering packs. They stand taller than most Florentines, with long, sleek hair and wide generous mouths, moulded by years of orthodontic work to showcase the most dazzling smiles: teeth as white as sets of shining marble tombstones.

For moneyed Americans, perfect dentistry is a matter of course. When they venture out to local markets or mix with the older Florentines in bars or cafes I suspect they are taken aback by how other people's mouths don't come up to their standard.

Probably they don't register how we (I include myself - for my teeth are a more European affair) - stare at them in similar disbelief.

It's partly that we outnumber them. Not only in the present. The artistic revolution that marked Florence as the cauldron of the Renaissance covered its walls with vibrant images of its citizens; an unprecedented commentary of life and looks 500 years ago.

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Sarah Dunant
  • Sarah Dunant is a writer, broadcaster and critic
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST

Inside the excuse of Biblical stories you meet all manner of Florentines, young, old, important, unknown, rich, poor, beautiful and ugly. But when it comes to open-mouthed smiles there are almost none on display.

The acme of female beauty around this time was golden hair, dark eyes, lily-white skin and rose or pomegranate lips. Teeth if mentioned are tiny pearls glimpsed under the upper lip.

The most reproduced woman of Western art, Mary, mother of God, never really opens her mouth at all, even when a miracle is happening.

In Renaissance art, the annunciation - a moment where some joy might seem in order - is actually a study of a woman's complex emotional, spiritual journey: fear, incomprehension, wonder and quiet acceptance. To crack a big smile would be - well - too forward.

In portraits of ordinary men and women, smiles are equally rare. Being recorded for posterity was a serious business.

We could do a whole point of view on Mona Lisa's teasing little pout (Giorgio Vasari, 50 years later and not always reliable, writes that Da Vinci, while he was painting her "employed singers and musicians to keep her full of merriment".)

Virgin Mary holding Jesus Mary is not often pictured smiling, even when witnessing miracles

More telling perhaps are the Venuses that follow her. After Botticelli come an army of bathing, sleeping, lounging beauties covered only by their hair and then not even by that. Titian's famous Venus of Urbino, is brash enough to stare directly out from the canvas making eye contact - clearly modesty had its limits. Her lips however stay compressed.

I know what you're thinking. Tooth decay. Bad breath. They don't show their teeth in the past, because they all went black and fell out early.

The rise of clean teeth

Toothbrush
  • History of teeth-cleaning reaches as far back as 5000 BC, when Egyptians made tooth powder with ox hooves, myrrh, powdered and burnt eggshells, and pumice
  • Romans and Greeks also used tooth powder but added crushed bones and oyster shells
  • Toothpowder became available in England in 18th Century and included abrasive substances such as brick dust, crushed china, earthenware and cuttlefish
  • Bicarbonate of soda used for basis of most toothpowders and the poor applied this directly with fingers
  • William Addis credited with making first toothbrush in 1780 made from cattle bones and wild boar hair
  • First synthetic toothbrush developed in 1930s America

Well, certainly there is some truth in that. Recipes for preserving and whitening teeth are everywhere, everyone from Hildegard of Bingen to Nostradamus - fennel, lovage, mint, rubbing with salt and sage, rinsing with alcohol, all have recognisable elements of modern mouth hygiene, though pulverising crystal, marble, glass, cuttlefish bone, fragmented pearls and riverbed stones into a paste makes one doubt Nostradamus' accuracy in others area of prediction.

The first recognisable manufactured toothbrush arrives in Europe in the late 18th century, and proper toothpaste only really gets going after the Second World War.

But before we get too smug about modernity, we should factor in that it was the arrival of sugar as part of everyday diet that really accelerated rot. Forget whiteness and start contemplating the exquisite agony of toothache.

History again was on our side. The first ever public surgery using anaesthetic took place in 1846 in Boston general hospital (in a theatre now known as the ether dome). The procedure? The removal of a tumour in the neck. The surgeon: a dentist.

Back for a moment to those mouths of the past. Because that coyness when it comes to teeth - certainly female - is rich in subtext. The image of toothy open mouths - smiling or not - denote something - well something more predatory and sexual.

Let me be elliptically crude for a moment.

Think Chaucer's wife of Bath: large hips, scarlet stockings, a string of husbands and - very important - gap teeth: a sure sign to other pilgrims of possible lasciviousness.

Then there is that most dangerous of all women in mythology, Medusa. So horribly lovely - wild writhing snakes for hair - that she can only be safely viewed - and slaughtered - by reflection. Images of Medusa's decapitated head - from classical Greek through the great masters are unmissable: gaping mouth, teeth bared in violent fury.

Woodcut of the wife of Bath The Wife of Bath: "God bad us for to wexe and multiplye"

Think Vampires - always most alluring in the body of lovely young women eager to test their canines on a male neck. Or the even more potent myth of vagina dentata - I trust you can manage that translation - the ultimate male nightmare which so continues to fascinate and appal that only few years ago it surfaced again in a rather splendid independent American movie - half comedy, half horror.

And finally imagine, if you will, those images of Monica Lewinsky that sped around the world: the young eager intern, flowing dark locks and wide generous mouth rising up from the crowd to greet the President of America, a man she would be happy to serve in whatever way she could.

Whether we are discussing the past or the present, the open smiling female mouth, carries with it definite psychosexual power.

How even more fascinating then to remember that perfect American teeth arrived during what masquerades as the chirpiest, cleanest decade of all - the 1950's. What provoked it? Well, certainly Americans were brushing more - GI's brought the institutionalised habit back from the army.

Mitzi Gaynor in the film South Pacific Mitzi Gaynor was renowned both for her smile and her hair-washing abilities

But it's more than that. There is also the rise and rise of the Kodak camera (say "cheese") and arrival of Technicolor.

Think of the change from black and white dustbowl images of American men and women, blackened teeth and blank eyes staring into no future to that cinematic Doris Day smile, or more precisely the all American girl Mitzi Gaynor "washing that man right out of her hair" amid the technically enhanced colours of South Pacific, and you have a cultural shift as dazzling as the teeth that proclaimed it.

Post-war American optimism: the house, the car, the kids, the wife and the teeth to match the fridge doors behind her.

Here in Britain, with dentistry hanging on the tails of the NHS it was all a bit more hit and miss. Many baby boomers had some brush (I refuse to apologise for the word) with orthodontics.

Previously in the Magazine

"Hollywood smiles are pearly white paragons of straightness. British teeth might be described as having character."

A fair number - like me - were born with what seemed to be too many teeth for their mouths. (While I don't want to bring Richard Dawkins into this - because he does get everywhere - I do find the evolutionary pace of change when it comes to teeth a bit of a disappointment. I mean it's been millennia since we regularly gnawed at the bones of bison. Surely things should have gone a bit faster).

I had four teeth extracted and a brace which, alas, didn't really do the job. Two generations on, ideas and technology have started to shift. Now rather than simply getting rid of the teeth you can widen the jaw. Millimetre by uncomfortable millimetre. We are edging ever closer to the American smile, though given the price it is not for everyone.

Many would argue our mouths are already a lost cause: You can wear out shoe leather in some parts of the country before finding a dentist willing to take on NHS patients.

In the years before the economic downturn thousands of dentists went private claiming that there was no financial incentive to do what they saw as necessary work. Latest statistics show the recession has hit private dentistry worse that the NHS, but patient figures are down in both and with diet often linked to income and a rapidly aging population the omens are not good.

But if the opposite - the thought of an army of wide-mouthed shining teeth - alarms you more, then there is hope.

You have probably yet to hear of "Yaeba". It means "double tooth" in Japanese and the Yaeba look - the choice of number of Japanese fashionista teenage girls - involves cosmetically altering their canine teeth to make them appear more crooked - like the overcrowded look of a young mouth before expensive orthodontics gets to work.

I await the arrival of this in my local Florence bar with interest. Until then my lips are sealed. Rather like all those older Florentines on the walls around me.

Here is a selection of your comments.

The US fad for a blinding smile and straight teeth is great if you have the money! What many people don't realise is that by having something like veneers that the tooth underneath it must be filed back in order to slip the caps over the top. While teeth may be sexual and even dangerous or erotic they are still teeth and are meant for chewing and mastication.

Boris, Ilminster, Somerset

Back when I lived in the States (two whole months ago) my unfriendly dentist made disparaging comments about the yellowish cast to my teeth and tried very hard to sell me a very expensive and dubiously safe tooth whitening procedure. I declined. Here in Guatemala I have already had several people comment on how straight and white my teeth are.

Mark Larson, Guatemala

My mother told me to avoid showing my teeth in photos, as the viewer would be distracted by them! It is hard to smile naturally without showing some flash of tooth! I was self-conscious about the space between my front two teeth anyway. No orthodontia was provided - how I had hoped it would!

Sharon Pfister, Laguna Niguel, USA

The people of some societies die at a ripe old age with a full set of shiny healthy teeth. It is the increasingly processed Western diet which has led most of us in the "developed world" to experience overcrowded and unhealthy teeth, and to believe that these are normal. Early in the 20th century Dr Weston Price studied this phenomenon with great rigour, but his findings - which also revealed surprising health risks associated with routine dental practices - were (and continue to be) brushed over by the dental community from which he himself came. It would be wonderful if we obsessed less over how our teeth look, and instead sought to understand how they reflect our wellness. Teeth are a bellwether for our overall health, and I would encourage anyone with an interest in teeth or nutrition to investigate the topic, perhaps via Price's work.

Steve , Chester

Given the reported relationship between optimal oral hygiene and the inhibition of heart disease, diligent care of dentition is not altogether aesthetic in nature. Rather, it is conducive to general health.

Dr Nun Amen-Ra, Damascus, Maryland

Your comment regarding an unsmiling Mary is not historically correct. That Mary arose around 1400 due to yet another moronic proclamation by a religious leader. If you look at statues of Mary before 1400, especially in Germany, you will see smiling ones. Nuremberg has a few in its museums.

saucymugwump, Denver

As an American, I have to say that I don't understand the fascination with having literal pearly whites! It almost runs along the idea of a perfectly-spotless house or an immaculately-kept car: unused, merely for looks, showing off for attention. I never had braces. I smoke, drink too much coffee, and can't stand the way most "whitening" toothpastes taste. My teeth are somewhat stained (natural use, it happens) and a few of them aren't exactly straight. I still smile. My choppers are strong, serve their purpose well, and I have no problem showing them off should the occasion permit. Plus, on a fiscal note, there is NO WAY I'm going to pay an exorbitant amount of money every few months just so my smile will glow in a black light!

Craig Spence, Brighton, Tennessee

When I was a kid there was not the emphasis on tooth cleaning there is now though back in the 1930s, contrary to your article, toothpaste was common and the poor made it from the white out of the fire. I had trouble from a very early age and had a weekly appointment with the dentist as a five-year-old. I lost the last of my teeth in 1957 as a 22-year-old and live to regret it to this day. I have great difficulty in eating. I have just had implants put in at the cost of many thousands of dollars and they are a total failure like so much of modern technology.

Charlie White, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A few years ago I was on Sumba (an island belonging to Indonesia), which is quite different from the rest of Indonesia, The people look more like the peoples from the Pacific Ocean Islands! The women on Sumba file their teeth, which become completely black, in order to be considered very brave and of great beauty! Then they chew tobacco-leaves all their lives against the pain as well as for the teeth to become even more black. I thought them quite beautiful, once I was used to them.

Franca Louwers, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

Were not the Welsh always noted for good teeth 800 years ago? They pounded Hazel twigs to form a brush, and cleaned their teeth.

Basil Brookes, Spruce Grove, Canada

The smile of a human rendered in a painting is of interest to me. The only painting I could find from the masters which portrayed the teeth of their models is that of Johannes Vermeer's "The Procuress." That painting features a self portrait of the artist, who bears his yellow brown teeth in the painting; there are two men, someone else, and a prostitute.

Chris Griffin, Sunnyvale, California, USA

We are obsessed with teeth perfection in America. I had braces as a teenager. My orthodontist, not satisfied with with mere straightness, also wanted to break my jaw and move it forward because I have a slight overbite. He became angry when I told him we'd decided not to have my jaw brought forward, saying all my teeth would fall out by the time I was 21, but didn't explain why this would happen. I was worried for years all my teeth would fall out, until I turned 21 actually and hadn't lost a single tooth. I'm 45 now and still have all my teeth. The "Yaeba" trend is interesting. For some reason my favorite look teeth-wise is flat top front teeth, like the actor Joanna Scanlan's. I'm predicting flat teeth to be the next big thing.

Kathleen Frye, Cincinatti

The only unnaturally white, perfectly symmetrical teeth I saw for the first four decades of my life were cheap and nasty, badly made dentures. When I see an American (or anyone, come to that, but so far they have been Americans) under 70 with that look, I fight an urge to ask them how they lost their teeth. Skiing accident? Unfortunate encounter with a baseball wielding maniac? A mother who put cola in their feeding bottle? If I allow myself to dwell on the topic, I consider asking if they'd be happy to accept a donation to help towards the cost of a new, better, more natural-looking set of dentures.

Martin, Long Eaton, Derbyshire

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