I want to take you back to the days before Crest and Colgate, when the rotting of teeth was just part of life. To a time when dentistry was done with hammers, and your breath was just your breath … and that was that. It wasn’t that long ago. When reading novels or histories, consider that if Scarlett O’Hara or Jane Eyre or Abraham Lincoln or William Shakespeare said hello to you, you’d immediately want to set yourself on fire. Woe to the time-traveling historians assigned to 19th century or earlier! Your morning breath in 2021 was better than the absolute best day that Cleopatra ever knew. Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships—but from a distance. From an olfactory standpoint, Marie Antoinette’s last day was the best of her life. Nary a pearly white in a single Founding Father’s head; it was sea to shining sea of hideous flaxen grins.
Here is a terrifying statistic. In 1900, only 7% of Americans brushed their teeth regularly. Today, according to Johnson & Johnson, 68% of Americans do. Just to be clear here: 32% of Americans today are not brushing their teeth regularly. That number is large enough that some of you are reading this very magazine, and I just have to know: WHAT ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING? I am growing weary of wearing my mask everywhere, but now I’m hoping we never stop.
The reason so few people were brushing their teeth at the turn of the last century was the nature of toothpaste. It was gross: a jar of tooth powder shared by the family (or families), into which you plunged a damp toothbrush before sticking it in your own mouth. Everybody was double-dipping, and nobody was OK with it, and I’m with you there. Antibiotics hadn’t yet been invented, and who knows what was being passed around. Since then, scientists have delivered tubes of toothpaste unto the world like Moses presenting the Ten Commandments. There’s just no excuse for not using them.
Even in 1900, though, dental hygiene was not new. The rudimentary toothbrush is about five thousand years old. Cultures and nations going back to ancient Egypt used twigs, generally, sharpened to get in between teeth. Tooth powder is even older than that: about 7,000 years old—a millennium more ancient than the pyramids. At the time, it was made from, among other things, ox hooves, burned eggshells and myrrh. (Perhaps the wise men wanted Jesus to have good hygiene?) The Greeks and Romans tried to improve on it, adding bones and oyster shells as an abrasive. (Here I invite you to consider not only how this affected your tooth enamel, but how it affected your gums.) In the early 1700s in France, urine (your own) was considered to be a pretty good option. Sensodyne it wasn’t, but at least they were trying.
Oral hygiene has always been serious business. On some level, people have always recognized that dirty teeth are disgusting and bad breath a thing to solve. Assuming a standard level of halitosis for pre-Aquafresh civilizations, bad breath beyond that might have indicated health problems: respiratory issues, liver or kidney issues, or gastrointestinal distress.
Early mouthwashes were wine based, which was on the right track, though wine does not contain enough alcohol to kill bacteria. Still, when they took a swig straight from the bottle first thing in the morning, it was just good hygiene and families applauded. When I do it, it’s a problem and there’s an intervention.
Here’s a bit of trivia for you: Paul Revere was a dentist. He was more famously an engraver, of course, but the closer the colonies got to revolution, the less valuable his services were. So he took up dentistry to make a little extra money. (It was, at the time, something of a trade, like being a roofer. You apprenticed for a bit and you were set.)
World War II was a boon for oral hygiene in the United States. For one thing, soldiers weren’t given the choice to see military dentists: before you shipped out, someone would be scraping and poking around in your head. This was new, and soldiers complained bitterly about it, but long after the war, such procedures—which included extractions, crowns and dentures—kept American teeth healthy beyond those of generations previous. The war was also good for dentists, who had to do an awful lot with very little, which ultimately improved their techniques. (When you have to extract a tooth but there are no painkillers, you need to be quick and efficient.) The entire profession thus saw an upgrade, including the introduction of new drugs, treatments and practices. In short, when soldiers returned home after the war, they had better teeth and America had better dentists.
Just as people have always wanted clean teeth, they’ve always wanted white teeth as well. That is why urine was the Crest Whitestrips of its day; the ammonia found in its chemistry had some whitening properties. When that didn’t work, teeth could be filed and treated with nitric acid.
As for bad breath, its causes are typically born in the mouth, and usually from poor dental hygiene. Bad breath typically means a type of bacteria has found a place it loves—your mouth—and it’s making babies there. The name of this creature is Solobacterium moorei, and believe it or not, scientists only learned of the culprit in 2008, which is absurdly recent. Other causes of bad breath include the foods you eat; the gum disease gingivitis (which 1980s television taught me is, along with quicksand, among the most pressing problems a person faces in life); stress; booze; some sort of tonsil, esophageal or stomach problem; or maybe kidney failure. I would get that checked out just in case.
If you’ve just landed on Earth and need some pointers, here’s how to keep your teeth clean.
Step 1. Buy a toothbrush. Rouses has so many to choose from that it can be overwhelming, I admit. I suggest you go with the red one.
Step 2. Buy toothpaste. Get the kind with the most stripes, or maybe the one with sparkles. Eenie-meenie-miney-moe it. You really can’t go wrong here. Now I know what you’re thinking, having just read that: Rouses is in league with Big Dental and it’s all buy buy buy when it comes to mouthcare. Reader, I assure you we are not. But we do care about your health and your enjoyment of food. Your bad breath is affecting your senses of taste and smell, and your teeth are going to rot out of your head and how do you expect to eat from the Rouses smokehouse department, where you get bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers and bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken thighs? You can’t gum bacon, fella.
Step 3. Get floss. Close your eyes and point at the rack. Now open your eyes. The one you’re pointing at? That’s the right one.
Step 4. Go ahead and pick up some mouthwash, too. The yellow Listerine will kill any microbe within a mile of your mouth. Get the big one.
Step 5. Go home. Please don’t brush your teeth in the health products aisle.
Step 6. Floss. You’re probably thinking, No way, man—that’s advance level oral hygiene. But stay with me here. When I was in high school, my best friend’s dad was a dentist, and I asked him once if he flossed every day, and he said he did, and I found that hard to believe. But he gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “David,” he said, “go home and floss your teeth and smell the floss after. If you’re OK with how it smells, don’t worry about it.” Well of course I did that the moment I got home. In short, I have not missed a single day of flossing since 1996.
The American Dental Association has this whole long thing about how to floss, and no one’s got time to read that. Here’s the short, short version: Hold that string tight and run it up and down between each of your teeth, and if you run out of teeth, floss behind the back ones, too. I’m no dentist but that’s pretty much the whole thing.
Step 7. Apply toothpaste to toothbrush. Just go wild.
Step 8. Brush. Again, the American Dental Association is really pedantic about this stuff, offering angles for brushing and all these crazy instructions. I don’t think we have to worry about all that today. You’re reading a grocery store magazine to learn how to brush your teeth. There’s really no wrong way to do it at this point, as long as you scrub the entirety of every tooth. Just really shove that toothbrush into your yuckmouth and give it the business.
Step 9. Spit. Don’t swallow toothpaste. Spit that nastiness into the sink, and wash it down the drain, you animal. When I was a kid, I slept at a friend’s house and he and his kid brother swallowed their toothpaste as they brushed, and thirty years later I’m still thinking about it. Don’t do that.
Step 10. Brush your tongue. Oh, you’re not done with that toothbrush just yet. You’re going to town on that tongue. Keep going. Just all of it, until it looks like—well until it doesn’t look like whatever it looks like right now. Make it look like everyone else’s tongues. And get far back there, too.
Step 11. Rinse. (Even I didn’t realize there were so many steps to this.) Rinse that fresh, minty mouth out a whole bunch of water. Just swish it around and let the hydrodynamic features of your newly flossed and buffed teeth really turn your mouth into a waterpark. Spit out the water and rinse that sink again, because nobody wants to see that gunk when it dries.
Step 12. Mouthwash. The final step. Pour about a capful of Listerine into your mouth, and swish it around for thirty seconds, and gargle too, like on TV. (I don’t have enough time to explain how to gargle.) Spit it in the sink, don’t forget to rinse it—I won’t tell you again.
Congratulations! You will now have a much easier time making friends. Go ahead and toss your facemasks in the laundry, too. They probably need a good cleaning of their own.