You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twenty One

Christoph Muller and his golden tooth, 1593

When you smile, you reveal your teeth. Before the adoption of regular dental hygiene and the development of the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1780 by William Addis, people were loathe to smile because of the parlous state of their teeth. This is why the subjects of many portraits until the 19th century rarely had anything other than a fixed expression with mouth firmly shut.   

In 1593 in the remote village of Weigelsdorf in Silesia, in what is now south-western Poland, a seven-year-old boy by the name of Christoph Muller astonished onlookers with his smile. When he opened his mouth, there for all to see was a golden tooth. News of this phenomenon quickly spread far and wide, soon reaching the ears of Dr Jakob Horst, a professor of medicine at Julius University in Helmstadt. Jumping on his horse, the intrepid Dr Horst rushed to Silesia to investigate the phenomenon for himself.

On getting Christoph to open his mouth, Dr Horst prodded around, using a touchstone, a piece of jasper commonly used at the time to test the alloy of gold, and satisfied himself that the tooth was indeed made of gold, albeit not of the highest quality. Satisfied that he had a major scoop on his hands, the doctor put quill to paper and produced a treatise, running to 145 pages, on the subject, entitled De aureo dente maxillari pueri Silesii, or for non-Latinists, Of the golden tooth of the boy from Silesia.

Even allowing for the grandiloquence of the day 145 pages is a lot to fill when you are writing about a tooth, even one made of gold. Not unsurprisingly then, Dr Horst began to engage in speculation as to how the tooth arrived in Christoph’s mouth and what it all meant. Noting that the boy had been born on 22nd December 1585, a day when there had been an unusual alignment of the planets, he speculated that this might have caused a sufficient rise in the sun’s temperature to cause the bone in Christoph’s jaw to turn to gold. The good doctor did not seem to pause to consider why other children born on the same day weren’t wandering around with a mouthful of gold.

As to what it all meant Horst argued that the tooth was a portent of a new golden age for the Holy Roman Empire. However, as the tooth was in the left-hand side of the boy’s mouth, the left being considered to represent misfortune and evil, there would be a series of calamities before the dawning of a new age.

But not everyone was as convinced as Horst that Christoph’s golden tooth was a miraculous event. In particular, a Scotsman, a pragmatic and down-to-earth race, if there ever was one, Duncan Liddell, a physician based in Helmstadt, argued in another treatise, Tractatus de dente aureo pueri Silesiani, that the only explanation was that the tooth was man-made.

Who was right?

The passage of time demonstrated that Horst had been duped. The boy’s use of his tooth coupled with regular experiments with touchstones to examine the constituency of the molar, resulted in the gold wearing away. In fact, the tooth, far from being solid gold, was coated with a thin layer of the metal. Christoph became reluctant to allow further examinations of his tooth to take place, a decision which sufficiently enraged a drunken nobleman to stab him in the cheek. The doctor, called upon to stitch Christoph up, soon found that the tooth was a clever hoax.

The man who had performed the operation reportedly fled the village, leaving his name to be lost in the mists of time. Poor Christoph, however, was flung in jail for his part in perpetrating the fraud. On the bright side, however, this hoax is thought to have been the first documented case of fitting what we would call a gold crown to a tooth.

If you are unfortunate enough to have to have a crown fitted, pause and give a thought to Christoph Muller.

Careful Grooming May Take Twenty Years Off Of A Woman’s Age But You Can’t Fool A Flight Of Stairs


I’m quite content with the way I look, thank you very much, but many of us can’t resist a spot of titivation. Indeed, the grooming products industry is a multi-billion one world-wide. But, as Marlene Dietrich helpfully pointed out, you can only go so far in forestalling the effects of anno domini. Not that it has stopped many trying and some pretty odd and questionable, and potentially dangerous, methods have been adopted through the ages to enhance our looks. A few months back I read a fascinating review of Angus Trumble’s A Brief History of the Smile – not good enough to prompt me to buy it, though – in which the author investigated why until comparatively modern times – the late eighteenth century – the subjects of portraits rarely smiled.

And the reason was the quality of their teeth. The linkage with the state of your molars and smiling goes back to at least the first century BCE as evidenced by Catullus’ delightful and, dare I say it, biting Carmen 39 which includes the following “Egnatius, because he has bright white teeth, always smiles”.Indeed, it was only around 1780 that William Addis invented the first mass-produced toothbrush and it was another century before the practice of regularly brushing your ‘Ampsteads was widely adopted.

Before then, if you felt the need to look after your molars, a recommended practice was to rinse them with urine. Back to Catullus – “whatever each man has urinated, with this he is accustomed in the morning to rub his teeth and gums until they are red” . This may not be as daft as it may seem as urine is rich in ammonia which can neutralise the acid that the bacteria responsible for tooth decay produces. I might discuss this with my hygienist next time I see her.

Another option, adopted in the mid 19th century and promulgated by Florence Hartley in her 1860 blockbuster, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Etiquette – a Victorian stocking filler, if there ever was one – was to use bread. According to la Hartley all you needed to do was to cut a thick slice of bread into squares, burn them until they were charcoal and then pound them into a paste. Once you had sifted the dregs through a fine muslin, you were ready to go. If you hadn’t time for all of that – or didn’t have a servant – you could always resort to twigs and salt to shine them up.

Our ancestors were less pernickety about using substances we now consider to be noxious. Take arsenic, for example. It was used extensively during the 19th century, not just as a pigment in wallpapers – so prevalent was death by inhaling arsenic fumes from wallpaper that it was known as the silent killer – but also in beauty products. This helpful recipe promulgated by the Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion of 1834 was designed to assist with the removal of unwanted hair. You were advised to take one ounce of gum of ivy and one drachm each of ants’ eggs, gum Arabic and orpiment, grind them up into a fine powder and then add vinegar to produce an ointment. The only problem was that orpiment was a form of arsenic. Indeed, the recipe warned those foolish enough to follow its instructions to be very careful not to inhale the dust of the orpiment whilst pounding.

Acne is another affliction which has dented many a young man’s (and woman’s) confidence over the ages. One form of treatment regularly adopted during the dog days of the 19th century involved taking arsenic tablets. Individually, the dosage was hardly enough to cause you any harm – a tablet might contain just one hundredth of a grain of arsenic sulphide – but the regimen required you to take a tablet every two hours. The cumulative effect may have been a very different story and a few pimples on your face may have been the least of your worries!