A wry view of life for the world-weary

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Thirty Six


Edmund Lardner’s Prepared Charcoal

It is salutary to remember that it was only in 1780 that Thomas Addis invented the forerunner of the modern toothbrush and that regular care of your teeth was hit and miss at the best of times. The desire to have strong, white teeth and the need to deal with any problems arising from the decay of your hampsteads provided the quack with fertile ground in which to operate.

A chemist, Edmund Lardner, sought to introduce a new tooth whitener to the great British public and by 1805 had produced a pamphlet extolling the use of his prepared charcoal solution. According to his advertising puff, “it possesses the desirable qualities of rendering the teeth beautifully white; destroying the faetor arising from carious teeth, which contaminates the breath; removing the scurvy from the gums and stopping the progress of the decay of the teeth, while, at the same time, it is incapable of either chemically or mechanically injuring the enamel”.

Students of the classics at the time would probably have noticed the rather uncanny resemblance to the verse quoted by Apuleius in section 6 of his Apologia, “I sent you, just as you asked me to, clean teeth and a bright smile, the product of Araby, a little powder, fine, noble and whitening, something to reduce the swelling of your little gums, to brush away yesterday’s leftovers, so that nothing dingy and nasty might be seen should you part your lips in laughter”. Pliny, in his Natural Histories, reported the regular usage of tooth powder which included astringents such as myrrh, nitre and hartshorn which as well as whitening the gnashers, strengthened the gums and assuaged toothache.

Lardner’s, by now superior prepared charcoal, to differentiate from a rival version of the tooth powder bearing his name but sold by Alexander Blake who had left his employ, was selling at 2 shillings and 2 shillings and nine pennies a box. A mouth solution was also available, retailing at 2s 9d and 5s 6d each. Prospective purchasers were warned to only buy the genuine article bearing the signature of Edmund Lardner on the label and the preparation was widely available at most vendors of genuine medicines. Lord Byron was a fan of Lardner’s product asking Douglas Kinnaird to send him a supply when he was in Venice in 1818.

What was in it and was it any good? Well, the curious thing about Lardner’s product was that there was precious little charcoal in it. The main constituent was powdered chalk which was mixed either with a small amount of charcoal or with a pigment from the charred bones of animals. The Concentrated Solution was a distilled infusion of roses and myrrh – again revealing a fascinating similarity with the powders used by the Romans. It probably did work and activated charcoal is regarded today as a valid form of tooth whitener and neutraliser of odours. Black toothpaste is available in the Far East.

What brought upon Lardner the opprobrium of the medical establishment was his claim that charcoal was the principal ingredient. The Medical Observer commented sniffily, “in what respect roses and myrrh resemble charcoal, we know not” and the London Medical and Surgical Spectator objected to the misleading name whilst being broadly supportive of the product. After all, what’s in a name?!


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