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    Saturday, September 24, 2022

    History Matters: Dentures found during a dig leads to discovery of Dr. Sheffield’s toothpaste

    The false teeth that we found on an archaeological dig and inspired this journey into early dentistry.(Jim Littlefield photo)

    “Way back when,” little was known about tooth decay. It was believed to be only natural that human teeth rotted away or were worn down over time through heavy use. (Another early theory blamed teeth worms.)

    Life expectancy was much shorter in the not-so-distant past, but as a rule people generally did outlive their teeth. Even as late as the early 19th century, it was noted by Lyme doctor Vine Utley in his medical journal that few of his patients (even of modest years) could lay claim to many or the majority of their own choppers.

    Maybe it should have come as no shock then, when during one of our many archaeological digs in the local area, we stumbled upon what we did. Even if we had known about the extent of earlier tooth decay, I doubt if it would have made the discovery any less shocking.

    A senior anthropology class from East Lyme High School had set up stakes on the Smith-Harris property in East Lyme after discovering a “midden,” or trash heap where residents had once deposited their refuge. Midden sites are highly prized by archaeologists as they often contain concentrated evidence revealing how a family lived at the time of its use.

    As we analyzed material that came from the ground, we realized we were looking at the farming life of four individuals (we even had four different sizes of shoes) who once lived there during the early to mid-1950s. That was reaffirmed by a five-year journal property owner Frank A. Harris kept during that same time period.

    Horseshoes and harness, hitching rings, horse bits, cinches, horse liniment bottles and wagon parts were found which indicated there were horses on the property. The lack of stirrups, reigns or saddle remnants suggests the horses were not ridden but were used in lieu of machinery to farm the land.

    Cow bones, broken milk bottles and a tin state dairy license dated “1949” suggested a dairy farm. Cardboard bottle caps that stated “Brookside Farms, Niantic, Ct.” proved it.

    Broken chamber pots and numerous broken washbowls and pitchers (along with an outhouse that remained on the property) indicated that the inhabitants lacked indoor plumbing.

    A large number of lantern globes and wick assemblies, along with a great number of used batteries, pointed to the absence of electricity on the premises.

    Archaeological evidence allowed us to conclude that these people, the Smiths and the Harrises, were living an anachronistic farm life in this Connecticut town as late as 1955.

    But the false teeth we found in the midden were totally unexpected. This midden was located in a low-lying area, unsuitable for pasture or growing crops which, by default, made it an ideal spot for trash deposit.

    The teeth (like most of the artifacts) were caked with mud and were greeted with a great deal of apprehension by student investigators. Cleaning revealed an upper plate with the size suggesting a woman had once owned them. A local dentist would later confirm that hypothesis.

    A careful examination of materials used in construction by that same dentist also suggested this upper dental plate was made in the 1920s. Most likely either Florence Munger Harris or Lula Munger Smith (sisters) had left it behind, perhaps after a 1950s upgrade.

    We did find an oversized toothbrush later during the dig which we researched and found was used to clean false teeth. Had we found that artifact earlier, the discovery of that false upper plate might have been less of a surprise.

    We also found a used, rolled-up tube of Ipana toothpaste (how many readers remember the Bucky Beaver “Brusha, Brusha, Brusha, new Ipana toothpaste” cartoon commercials from the 1950s?). That simple artifact turned out to be a wonderful springboard for further discovery.

    Our anthropology class has been fortunate to have had the use of a school lab to process our finds. Students were always disappointed when the excitement of field work would end, but they were assured that the lab session to follow could be equally, if not more, stimulating and meaningful.

    Using dental picks and toothbrushes (supplied by another local dentist) we dutifully cleaned and catalogued our finds from the six-week field session. There were thousands of artifacts that needed to be examined, with many of them begging further research. The story of toothbrushes and toothpaste drew great class interest and soon became a top priority.

    Students found that humans had always been concerned about their teeth. Even in prehistoric times, teeth were picked with animal bones, thorns, animal claws, porcupine quills or bird feathers. Not very hygienic but they did remove those nagging food particles that always seem to get caught between human teeth.

    “Chew sticks” from almost 4,000 years old have been found that had frayed and were made from wood that imparted a favorable taste to the mouth. (Some are still used today.)

    The opposite end of the chewstick was often sharpened and used as a toothpick.

    To clean teeth, Egyptians used dried iris flowers, rock salt, ground pepper and mint, crushing them into a paste by adding water.

    In ancient Rome, an abrasive powder was made from hooves, pumice, eggshells, seashells and ashes, mixed with water and then rubbed on the teeth with a flayed stick. As disgusting as it may sound, animal and human urine were often used as a mouthwash, the ammonia content of nitrogen and hydrogen combining to act as a cleansing agent.

    Middle Ages disparities

    Even during the Middle Ages where so much knowledge from earlier civilizations had been lost, there were still efforts made to care for one’s teeth. A toothpaste was made from sage and salt crystals, along with powdered charcoal or crushed black pepper and was applied with a rag or sponge. Most of these earlier people had actually been “mopping” the teeth rather than brushing them, we found.

    More pleasant breath was obtained by rinsing the mouth with vinegar or wine. It might be interesting to note here that archaeological investigators have found that the upper classes in Medieval times had poorer teeth than the peasantry, the reason being that wealthier people had access to sugar!

    The invention of the basic toothbrush as we know it today has been ascribed to the Chinese, who used bamboo or bone as a handle and the hair of Siberian hogs for bristles in the 1400s. It makes sense that the invention appears to have come from northern China where the majority of people were meat eaters.

    That invention traveled to Europe in the 1600s where those pig bristles were often replaced by horsehair. England saw the first commercially made toothbrush in 1780, and that toothbrush came to America shortly afterwards where it underwent further modifications.

    But what turned out to be the most exciting historical discovery for the students was the important role our local community had played in the development of toothpaste.

    I was examining artifacts in the lab one day with several students, when another class member came rushing in from the library next door with some exciting news. “Guess what,” she said. “We invented toothpaste!”

    The “we” turned out to be Sheffield Tube Company in nearby New London. She had stumbled upon Dr. Washington Sheffield, a man who had been born in North Stonington in 1827 and later brought his skills as a dentist and chemist to nearby New London. There, at age 23, Dr. Sheffield had, indeed, invented our modern-day toothpaste.

    Earlier “toothpastes” had always been dried concoctions that had to be mixed with water prior to application. Dr. Sheffield developed a pre-mixed paste that originally sold in a jar. The problem with that was that a whole family might dip their toothbrushes into that same container which was not very hygienic. Luckily for Dr. Sheffield and his business, his son during a trip to Paris, France, happened to notice artists using collapsible metal tubes for their paints and inks. That information was quickly relayed to Dad and in 1892, the first collapsible toothpaste tube containing Sheffield’s pre-mixed paste hit the market.

    These tubes were made of tin. Dr. Sheffield also built facilities for printing and embossing those tubes and even made the boxes for shipping them.

    The New England Collapsible Tube Company was formed in 1911 by Sheffield’s two grandsons. It is still in business today at its original Broad Street location. The name is now “Sheffield Pharmaceuticals” and they are currently in the business of making creams, ointments and pastes for the medical and dental fields.

    All this information had come our way courtesy of a few simple artifacts that lay hidden in the ground for many years and were brought to light by an enterprising anthropology class of high school seniors, proving, yet again, that history does matter.

    Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.

    Dr. Washington Sheffield, inventor of the modern toothpaste.(Photo submitted)
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