Illustration from the original novel Les Miserables
Those who have seen the Tom Hooper musical film production of Les Miserables will recall Fantine, destitute and desperate, selling first her locket to support her infant daughter, then her hair, then her teeth, then finally herself.
Why, I wondered, would someone in those days have sold their teeth, that being in the novel and thence to the movie but not being a part of the stage musical.
There are other references to extractions and teeth in the music of Les Mis. The rogue Thernardier is described by the drinkers at his inn as having been at Waterloo after the fighting was done to pick the pockets of the dead. Later, as the fleeing Valjean carries the wounded Marius through the sewers., Thenardier is also present, picking the pockets of the corpses and extracting their gold fillings with pliers.
The novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo dates from 1862. It is set in the period 1815-1832.
During the 19th century the sale of hair by persons who were poor or in need of funds, such as by Fantine, was a common practice. Human hair was used in wigmaking and as hair for dolls, where it was inserted into doll heads a few tufts at a time, much like hair transplants today. Hair was also used for making hair jewellery by being braided into ropes and bracelets. It will be readily apparent that the sale of hair was by the desperate lower classes to provide fashion items and playthings for the richer, upper classes.
Those even more desperate could resort to selling their teeth. Dentistry in those days was not a matter of veneers and fillings. Extractions were a commonplace resolution of dental problems and were carried out by the dentist, the barber, the doctor, and even the village blacksmith.
If a person could afford it, missing teeth were replaced with dentures made variously from metal (gold if you could afford it), wood, bone, and ivory. Sometimes even animal teeth were used.
The problem with bone and ivory was that these substances reacted with saliva in the mouth, decayed and caused an unpleasant taste and odour. Porcelain came to be used in the late 18th century and, whilst they didn’t rot, they appeared unnatural because of their stark white colour.
It was found that the best replacement for missing human teeth was... human teeth.
At the time of Les Miserables, replacement healthy teeth were prized and were a saleable commodity if one was prepared to have them removed without anaesthetic, to suffer disfigurement and take the risk of infection.
The supply by sale and purchase was unable to meet demand, so where to obtain replacements? There was a plentiful supply of teeth in the mouths of corpses; graverobbers frequently attended at the graves after burial for this purpose. Unfortunately such deceased often had lower quality, decayed teeth, having died of old age or disease. Better quality teeth were available from the mouths of healthy, young deceased soldiers. With the great number of dead on the battlefields of Waterloo in 1815, over 50,000, the pickings were good. Scavengers, including surgeons, barbers and rogues, pulled the teeth of the young dead soldiers and placed them in jars, subsequently selling them to dentists and denture manufacturers, who placed them in ivory bases. These were also only available to the rich.
So many teeth were pulled at Waterloo that it gave rise to the term Waterloo Teeth for human teeth used in making dentures.
Carved ivory base with human teeth.
String of human teeth for use in dentures.
One of George Washington's dentures.
Washington had various dentures made, fashioned of lead, wire, ivory, bone, and human and animal teeth.
Thenardier, in the musical Les Mis, justifies his robbing from the corpses and the taking of gold from their mouths:
Well someone's got to clean 'em up, my friends
Bodies on the highway
Law and order upside down
Someone's got to collect their odds and ends
As a service to the town!
Well, someone's got to clean them up, my friends
Before the little harvest
Disappears into the mud
Someone's got to collect their odds and ends
When the gutters run with blood.
Waterloo Teeth were at their most popular in the early nineteenth century. Teeth from soldiers of the American Civil War appeared in catalogues in the late 1860s. Barrels of teeth from dead soldiers from the American Civil War were sent to England.
New technologies and techniques that made artificial teeth appear more realistic saw the decline of the use of Waterloo Teeth.
Following is an extract from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables:
Fantine has received a letter from the Thenardiers advising that Cossette has contracted a condition called military fever and that without forty francs for medicine, Cossette will surely die. Fantine is asked by a quack dentist to sell her teeth and offers her two gold napoleon coins, the equivalent of forty francs. She consults her friend, marguerite, and is told that there is such a condition as military fever that does prove fatal to many, especially to children.)
That evening she went out, and was seen to turn her steps in the direction of the Rue de Paris, where the inns are situated.
The next morning, when Marguerite entered Fantine's room before daylight,—for they always worked together, and in this manner used only one candle for the two,—she found Fantine seated on her bed, pale and frozen. She had not lain down. Her cap had fallen on her knees. Her candle had burned all night, and was almost entirely consumed. Marguerite halted on the threshold, petrified at this tremendous wastefulness, and exclaimed:—"Lord! the candle is all burned out! Something has happened."
Then she looked at Fantine, who turned toward her, her head bereft of its hair.
Fantine had grown ten years older since the preceding night.
"Jesus!" said Marguerite, "what is the matter with you, Fantine?"
"Nothing," replied Fantine. "Quite the contrary. My child will not die of that frightful malady, for lack of succor. I am content."
So saying, she pointed out to the spinster two napoleons which were glittering on the table.
"Ah! Jesus God!" cried Marguerite. "Why, it is a fortune! Where did you get those louis d'or?"
"I got them," replied Fantine.
At the same time she smiled. The candle illuminated her countenance. It was a bloody smile. A reddish saliva soiled the corners of her lips, and she had a black hole in her mouth.
The two teeth had been extracted.
She sent the forty francs to Montfermeil.
After all it was a ruse of the Thenardiers to obtain money. Cosette was not ill.