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The England of Elizabeth -- Skin & Teeth

I was reminded, when I read the following, of the scene where Viola's maid gives her a pick to clean her teeth


But then there was Soliman. Soiiman, when all else failed, really did get rid of all blemishes, freckles, spots, warts, and blobs by the simple expedient of removing the outer layer of skin. It was used, presumably, on the same principle as the "sandpapering" technique of modern plastic surgery. The only snag was that Soliman happened to be sublimate of mercury, and was described even then to be "dead fire malignant and biting". It removed spots and blemishes but it also quietly consumed the flesh underneath and left dreadful scar tissue ... to be removed by more Soliman. It also had some very unhappy side effects, it brought on "the shakes", blackened the teeth, and made the gums recede.

Teeth, as we know, did not last, partly because of the quite extraordinary kinds of dentifrices used. Some were made of honey and salt burned to ashes; others of powdered rabbit's head, pomegranate peel, and red peach blossom. A favourite was plain sugar and honey. This must have had a lovely, sweet taste and encouraged people to clean their teeth but it undoubtedly contributed to decay. Another highly recommended tooth-powder was made of the "calcined branches and tops of Rosemary" mixed with an equal amount of burnt alum. It was applied by licking the finger, dipping it into the powder and rubbing the teeth, taking care not to "gall the gums". After cleaning, the mouth was rinsed with water or wine and then dried with a towel. Mistress Twist, the court laundress, one New Year's Day presented Elizabeth with "four tooth-cloths of coarse Holland wrought with black silk and edged with bone lace". The bone lace must have been a curious edging for coarse Holland, as it was a very elaborate and delicate netting made of black, white or multi-coloured silks often interwoven with gold and silver thread.

Less tedious to use than tooth-powder, but infinitely more harmful, were small, pencil-like rolls, about four or five inches long, made of powdered alabaster and "gum dragonet". With these the teeth could be rubbed without wetting the finger-- and rubbed much harder, too. Let the barber remove the scales, Platt advises, but keep your teeth clean by constant rubbing. He also cautions, very particularly, against allowing the barber to use aqua fortis on the gums "or you may be forced to borrow a rank of teeth to eat dinner". It seems fantastic that aqua fortis* was not to be used on teeth or gums although sublimate of mercury was used on the skin; and even more fantastic to learn that stubborn stains on the teeth should be removed by rubbing with a mixture of powdered pumice, brick and coral. This, in time, removed the enamel as well as the stain.

Everyday care of the teeth included washing them three times a day and a stern injunction never to pick them with an iron toothpick. Wood, only, was to be used. But a wooden tooth- pick was hardly suitable to the rank and style ofa rich Elizabethan, so toothpicks were made of gold or silver and carried about in jewelled cases. The Queen was given several sets of gold tooth- picks on several occasions (she also had a gold earpick garnished with rubies)....

Yet, after all the washing, drying, and picking, nothing really saved the Elizabethans' teeth--perhaps because of the quantities of sugar they ate. Even foreigners commented on the bad teeth of the English--as they continued to do until a few years ago. So, when the condition of the teeth had deteriorated too far, the wretched beauty was advised, "if the teeth are badly eaten away, lacking or too large, the best thing is to lisp and simper rather than laugh or smile broadly". This counsel of despair was also enjoined upon those who suffered from unpleasant breath. It is a horrid thought that bad teeth or halitosis may lie behind the Mona Lisa smile.

Excerpted from The Pageant of Elizabethan England by Elizabeth Burton

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