Spring 2005

Incorruptible Teeth, or, the French Smile Revolution

Laughter and the birth of dentistry

Colin Jones

In 1787, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, painter to France’s royal and aristocratic elite, displayed a canvas at the Paris Salon. It was a self-portrait depicting the artist in an affectionate embrace with her daughter. Vigée-Lebrun is smiling—a sweet, broad smile revealing white teeth. There is little about this pose that seems in any way exceptional, yet exception was furiously taken. “An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning,” wrote an anonymous commentator, “and which finds no precedent amongst the Ancients, is that in smiling she shows her teeth. This affectation is particularly out of place in a mother.”

What was so shocking, and what was so new, in a gesture—the white-toothed smile—that has become in the modern world an anodyne marker of individual identity? In the twenty-first century, we associate that gesture most with the Great American Smile, that cultural icon (and investment opportunity) which stares down at us from every billboard and every political campaign poster. Madame Vigée-Lebrun offers a timid, un-American antecedent; why France first? And just what was at stake in the world of art—and indeed the world of smiles—as France limbered up for the more evidently world-historical episode inaugurated in 1789? 

One dimension of the smile revolution had to do solely with the world of painting that Madame Vigée-Lebrun inhabited. Representational conventions in place since antiquity (as our anonymous critic noted) dictated that an open mouth in Western art had very negative connotations. It showed, first, that a person was plebeian. An open mouth could often reveal a lack of teeth that only the “low” would own up to. Eighteenth-century teeth were often bad. The mass ingestion of sugar across Western Europe from the late seventeenth century—in the form of sweets and bon-bons, chocolate and sugared drinks like coffee, tea, and lemonade—meant that teeth were probably in worse shape than at any previous stage in human history. Open mouths in painting were fathomless black holes, Rabelaisian orifices emitting foul smells and provoking simple hilarity. They also signified that individuals were not fully in control of their reason. Such individuals might be insane or demented on one hand, or else children who had not yet attained the age of reason. 

The scandal over Madame Vigée-Lebrun’s 1787 smile brought to public attention a shift that had been going on outside the art world too. The French smile—relaxed, open-mouthed, good-humored, and hopefully white-toothed—was something to which other authors paid homage. For the Italian savant Caraccioli, Paris shook with “a moderated gaiety which consists not of great bursts of mirth but of a smiling countenance.” The celebrated theorist of physiognomy, Lavater, was in agreement. The French were always smiling: “I know them chiefly by their teeth and their laugh.”

Did French pride in their teeth owe something to superior mouth care? It did indeed. It was the French, in the eighteenth century, who invented scientific dentistry. In fact, they invented the word dentiste too, before it spread into other languages. In the past the noble art of tooth-pulling had been practiced by showmen who traveled from fair to marketplace, yanking out painful teeth in full public view before a gawping populace (and sometimes offering tightrope walking and commedia dell’arte performances on the side). The dentist, in contrast, prided himself on surgical legerdemain, medical book-learning, and gentlemanly respectability. 

Vigée-Lebrun’s controversial 1787 painting.

The emergence of dental science and a body of proficient dentists came more slowly in other countries, allowing France to develop an international hegemony in this domain. When Austrian empress Maria Theresa wanted the teeth of her daughter (the future queen Marie-Antoinette) straightened, she summoned a French dentist. When George Washington had toothache troubles on campaign in the War of Independence, he sent for an expatriate French dentist to lend succor. When the salon conversationalist, the Abbé Galiani, was finding that the progressive loss of his teeth was making it difficult for his Neapolitan friends to understand what on earth he was saying, he sent for a Paris-made set of dentures to restore his articulacy. His dentures were, he stated, his “parliament”: they restored a voice to the dentally disenfranchised. 

Within France, better provision for the care of teeth and smiles was registered in a buoyant market for mouth-care products of every description. Newspaper advertisements and handbills proclaimed the virtues of every kind of commodity that promoted good teeth and a healthy mouth: tooth-files, toothpicks, tongue-scrapers, tooth-powders and dentifrices, tooth-whitening agents, lipsticks, mouth deodorants and the like. The toothbrush—and Paris-made brushes were recognized across Europe as the very best—became the center of what was to become a daily morning ritual. So, for some, did artificial dentures, another energetically marketed commodity.

One of the most famous of the new breed of dentists was Nicolas Dubois de Chémant. A Paris surgeon by training, Dubois had an epiphanic moment in 1788, as he reeled with horror after an evening spent in the company of a society lady with artificial teeth and very strong halitosis. Dubois hit on the idea of creating porcelain teeth rather than using the smelly and perishable human and animal teeth hitherto employed in dentures. Using the hard-paste porcelain that was only just coming into use in France, he launched a series of manufacturing trials for “mineral dentures,” even drawing on the expertise of workers at the top-of-the-range porcelain factory at Sèvres to create a product that was comfortable, natural-looking, and resistant to surface cracking. By 1789, he had invented what became known as his “Incorruptible Teeth,” and had had them approved by the most prestigious academies and learned societies.

There was an enthusiastic launch amongst France’s social elite for a product that put the French smile at the disposal even of those who had lost all their teeth. Yet Dubois de Chémant was soon following many of his aristocratic clients into emigration. In 1793, he settled in Soho, London, home to a solid phalanx of political émigrés from Revolutionary France. In 1797, he even became a naturalized Englishman, switched his paste-supplier from Sèvres to Wedgwood, and peddled his wares to an upper-class English clientele as well as to fellow Frenchmen. 

Sales of the new “mineral, incorruptible teeth” were not at all bad. Dubois de Chémant’s advertising material in 1797 boasted of having sold three thousand sets of dentures; by 1816, the figure would be twelve thousand. Yet, in England, retailing the French smile—especially an artificial version of it—was fraught with problems. After all, these were years in which the English were honing their sense of national identity on blatant undercurrents of Francophobia. The wearers of Dubois’s new contraptions had to put up with a considerable degree of mockery, as exemplified in Thomas Rowlandson’s famous 1811 engraving, “A French Dentist Shewing a Specimen of his Artificial Teeth and False Palates.” Under the heading “Mineral Teeth,” we read, “Monsieur de Charmant from Paris”—not much of a disguise for Dubois de Chémant—“engages to affix from one tooth to a whole set without pain. Monsieur Dubois can also affix an artificial palate or a glass eye. He also distils.” The French smile was ridiculous because the mouth gaped open, but also because it revealed the ridiculous French contraption of porcelain dentures in the mouths of English individuals who had been duped by a quack—and who should have known better anyway than to attempt the French smile.

The English gentleman on the right of Rowlandson’s engraving, caught admiring the French (porcelain) smile, showed teeth in the kind of state that made the appeal of porcelain dentures understandable. Teeth were bad; but dental caries appear to have been no worse in France than elsewhere in western Europe—indeed French teeth may have been better than those of the English, whose per capita sugar consumption seems to have been exceptionally high. The fact that scientific dentistry evolved in France before England and elsewhere showed that explanations for the phenomenon are more social and cultural than biological. 

Part of the explanation for “Why France First?” lies in the buoyant world of French medicine and surgery from which scientific dentistry had evolved. But there was a demand as well as a supply side to the phenomenon. The French in the eighteenth century seem to have prided themselves on white teeth. The cornucopian profusion of mouth-care commodities on offer is unimaginable without a strong demand from within French society. The notion that the good-hearted smile was a national characteristic of the French also seems linked to changes going on in the French economy. A proto-consumer revolution, no less, was in train, with individuals even well down the social scale dressing, primping, and presenting themselves in ways more receptive to fashion and exchange. A new body was emergent, more soigné and cared for, more self-aware, more individualistic in appearance, and yet also more attuned to emergent codes of politeness and to the dictates of fashion. The prizing of a healthy and preferably beautiful mouth appears to have been an offshoot of these overarching developments. To a considerable extent the new smile was only possible in the context of a new body.

Thomas Rowlandson’s 1811 print of French dentist Dubois de Chemant showing off the mouth of a woman fitted with a double row of his mineral paste teeth and gums.

The new body was a bourgeois body. The plebeian body was still a Rabelaisian retort, recklessly spilling out odors and infections. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, the aristocratic body lagged behind the cultural changes emerging out on the Great Chain of Buying characteristic of bourgeois commodity culture. The great German sociologist Norbert Elias’s contention that the royal court was the fons et origo of the civilizing process in the West is far off the mark where teeth were concerned. The royal body had a closed mouth: teeth were immaterial. In public, the French king’s speeches were read for him. The king’s body embodied sovereignty. He did not need to open his mouth to assert it; his presence sufficed. At a more mundane but in its way no less significant level, moreover, Louis XIV had had the indignity of losing the upper part of his jaw in an over-enthusiastic bout of tooth-extraction in the 1680s—well before, of course, the advent of the dentist and the smile revolution. For the rest of his life he could not eat soup without spraying his plate through his nose—a spectacle that must have enlivened the public dining which was a feature of court life at Versailles. (Such a gesture would of course be unimaginable in the world of modern politics: Tony Blair is more famous for his Hollywood grin than for his table manners.) 

Power in ancien régime France was thus encoded and embodied in the closed mouth: Rigaud’s famous swagger portrait of Louis XIV has the monarch showcasing those dancer’s legs—but with no attempt to camouflage the sunken cheeks of toothless aging and reckless tooth pulling. Kings did not care much for smiling anyway. Louis XV’s decision to have one of his eyeteeth extracted, a courtier noted, “will disfigure him in talking and laughing.” No matter: the tooth went. As for Louis XVI, he might have “a fine leg,” another courtier opined, but “his teeth were badly arranged and made his smile rather ungraceful.” As for the future king, Charles X, he had “his mouth continually open,” in a hopelessly gormless manner. The French smile revolution—pace Elias—was not made at court. It was made out in the bourgeois public sphere. 

There was something mildly democratic about the new French smile as it became increasingly evident in the decades leading up to Madame Vigée-Lebrun’s 1787 gesture. It was as though eighteenth-century France was in the process of becoming an “open-mouthed society.” This was witnessed not only in the ceaseless patter of mouth-care advertisements but also, more importantly, in the profusion of writing and in the loquacity of Enlightenment sociability from salon to coffee-house. This contrasted strikingly with the habitual taciturnity of Bourbon closed-mouthedness. In this context, painting—in the shape of Madame Vigée-Lebrun’s 1787 self-portrait—was a late-comer to the smile party.

On the eve of the French Revolution of 1789, the new smile which was making its revolutionary way in western culture was thoroughly French. Yet if the open-mouthed, white-toothed smile went on to greater things, it also lost its close Gallic association. To some extent, prosaically, we can attribute this to the decline of French dentistry. When in 1802 the legislature reorganized the medical professions, it made no provisions at all for the practice of dentistry. Skilled dental practitioners had hitherto to practice on terms of legal equality with a whole army of tooth-pulling quacks and charlatans. The personal dentist of Napoleon I had been a trained practitioner in Paris under the ancien régime; yet the dentist of his nephew, Napoleon III, in the 1850s and 1860s, was an American citizen. It was as though by mid nineteenth-century, the decline of French dentistry and the French smile was opening up space in which American dentistry could establish a new and enduring brand leadership. 

French hegemony over the smile had in fact been shaken before the reorganization of the medical professions. The Revolutionary decade which followed Madame Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait was full of open mouths. In the long term, however, the Revolution would be more about maimed mouths than winsome smiles, especially once Terror came on the scene. The revolutionary crowd of 10 August 1792 which overthrew the monarchy had a vilely expressive atrocity to offer, whose obscene memory lingered over the following century: once they had killed Marie-Antoinette’s alleged lesbian lover, the Princesse de Lamballe, they cut off her head, plonked it on the end of a pike, and smeared around its mouth, in a kind of chillingly grotesque moustache, the princess’s own pudenda, before going on to wave this ghastly object in the face of the imprisoned queen. 

If late eighteenth-century France had seemed to launch a French smile Revolution, the political maelstrom of the 1790s took the French smile in quite a different direction. The characteristic French smile of the 1790s was the acme of horror and terror: the rictus of the gaping, mutilated mouth. 

Colin Jones is professor of history at Warwick University (UK). He is author of The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (Penguin, 2002) and (with Laurence Brockliss) of The Medical World of Early Modern France (Oxford University Press, 1997). His latest book, Paris: Biography of a City, was published in England by Allen Lane in 2004 and will be published in the US by Viking in April 2005.

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