Civil War Teeth: Oral Hygiene Wasn’t Always a Given

civil war photo
Photo by Mark Theriot

Did you know that the ‘4-F’ designation in the military used to mean that a potential recruit was missing four of their front teeth?

It might seem funny to us now, but missing your front teeth was a big deal back in the day! The designation comes from the American Civil War, where recruits were required to bite off the end of powder packages in order to reload their guns. If you didn’t have four of your front teeth–that is, your incisors and/or your canines–you had a harder time reloading your gun!

Situations like this meant dentistry took the forefront on the national health scene. Without proper dental care, the armies of both the Union and the Confederacy were in a precarious position. The diet and health of the armies played a big role in the state of their teeth, creating a genuine military concern! In fact, one of the organizations created during the Civil War was the Dental Corps in the Confederate Army.

What caused the most damage to American teeth?

In addition to the early stage of American dental science, it was around the 1850s that refined sugar and fresh (as opposed to cured or salted) meat really began to have an impact on the teeth of America. Scurvy was a huge concern, as were cavities, dental caries, and all manner of other easily-preventable oral health issues. A combination of lack-of-knowledge and lack-of-infrastructure combined to put the health of conscripted soldiers in a precarious position. In fact, it was issues like poor sanitation and lack of dental care that–according to some sources–caused over 60% of the casualties in the conflict!

The loss of life caused by otherwise preventable issues like poor dental hygiene taught America a lesson that it wouldn’t soon forget. Keeping your teeth healthy is a serious issue. Though we may think of oral health today as a given, it wasn’t always! Making sure your teeth stay healthy can make a life’s worth of difference.

Oral health may seem like a given– it’s not!

Today, the importance of oral health is obvious. But it wasn’t always– many of the techniques used during the American Civil War were of the time-honored ‘chewing sticks’ variety. As a long-standing tradition, chewing sticks was more effective than nothing (provided you used sticks from the right trees, like apple, olive, or dogwood) but dental science has come a long way since then.

If you have any questions about dental health or oral hygiene, don’t wait! If you’re in or around Austin, TX, contact the office of Dr. Matthews today to schedule an appointment. You’ll be following the grand Southern tradition of oral health!

Dan Matthews DDS
Dan Matthews Dan Matthews DDS The Park at Eanes Creek,
4407 Bee Cave Road
Building 2, Suite 221
Austin, Texas, 78746
(512) 452-2273
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