Having lived on three continents over the course of my life I conclude that Americans have the best teeth. Go anywhere in the world and find the person with the straightest, whitest teeth, and you will have found the American. They may look disheveled dressed in ugly t-shirts, may be loud and boorish or just hideously overweight, but look in their mouths and you will find exceptional teeth. US claims of “we’re number one” apply equally to Olympic medals won, total weapons exports, tonnage of bombs dropped and orthodontic splendor. If terrorists captured an international flight and wanted to separate the Americans for special treatment they would simply ask passengers to show their teeth. It would be a dead giveaway.
Attractive American teeth come from the hard work of the country’s oral beauticians, also known as orthodontists. I’ve only experienced orthodontists once, but if it’s any indicator of the business bonanza I can see why so many Americans have great smiles. I took my son to the office where it runs with military precision. The automated check-in process greeted us with more personality than many receptionists provide. My son’s appointment was at 11:15, and precisely at that time his name was called, a compact woman with lovely teeth ushered him to the orthodontic chair. In machine gun-like rapid succession the clinical inspection, treatment, payment and follow-up appointment was completed in exactly twenty-five minutes. When we got into the car I forgot to ask him about his appointment and instead bored him extolling the virtues of the orthodontists efficiency.
Americans haven’t always had beautiful teeth. It has been falsely suggested that George Washington wore wooden dentures. President Washington may have been first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, but he was also likely the first American with hippopotamus dentures. The National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, Maryland, displays the General’s dentures to some 10,000 visitors a year. Slaves were not the only African imports for the General. With such expensive dentures he might have smiled, but apparently he didn’t, not even when accepting Lord Cornwallis’s surrender after the last battle of American Revolution.
Think back on photos from the 19th century and one thing every portrait shares in common is the dour look of the subject. Nobody smiled. Could life have been that bad? Unpopular amongst photography subjects, big broad toothy grins only began to break in the 20th century. The one noteworthy exception was Teddy Roosevelt. His teeth entered politics well before he came to national prominence. In 1895 Roosevelt became New York City’s Police Commissioner, and launched a crusade to clean up and professionalize the corrupt and incompetent police service. His honest and forthright manner attracted many supporters, but his teeth won the day. A reporter for New York’s The World observed,
… he shows a set of teeth calculated to unnerve the bravest of the Finest. His teeth are very white, they form a perfect straight line. The lower teeth look like a row of dominoes. They do not lap over or under each other, as most teeth do, but come together evenly. …. They seem to say: Tell the truth to your Commissioner, or he’ll bite your head off.
Roosevelt’s teeth also become political fodder for his opponents. A cartoon that failed to satirize his teeth was not worth the paper on which it was drawn.
Teddy lived the strenuous life, until he turned sixty when apparently life became too strenuous. What was the cause of his untimely death? His teeth, of course. Roosevelt, so it was suggested, had suffered an infected tooth for some years, which erupted into full-blown sepsis, ending in a fatal embolism. Today, dental historians – yes, dental historian, something to which your child might aspire – dispute the infected tooth claim. In the end, Roosevelt’s teeth made him what he was – dead – and started an American love affair with the perfect smile.
If perfect teeth mark the American, then I am a stranger in a strange land. Growing up I never had braces, so my teeth fail to meet exacting Yankee standards. In fact, over the years an eyetooth – Chester as my wife calls it – has shifted out of line, becoming prominent in its displacement. My misaligned teeth also have a mottled yellow-grey appearance coming from my jaundiced view at birth (a view which persists to this day). In moments of self-doubt I have consulted dentists about changing my dental appearance. The discoloration of my teeth cannot be erased, but a porcelain veneer on my front teeth, and an invisible plastic braces shifting my teeth can make my smile anew.
Fortunately, these moments don’t last long and I think of more constructive things to do.
In the 1990’s my wife and a friend, neither of whom were American and had the teeth to prove it, joined me in founding Cyber.consult an Internet skills training company. Today Internet skills training sounds like learning to masturbate while doing email, but in the 1990’s it passed for legitimate business. We used to terrify our students with our toothy grins while training them on the basics of web browsing. Cyber.consult’s lowest moment occurred while explaining to a student how to navigate the web only to be met with stunned silence. When I asked the man why he wasn’t following my instructions to “place his mouse over the hyperlink” he stared at me as if I were insane. I tried several versions of the same instruction, but none worked. In frustration I asked him he wasn’t doing as I asked, to which he replied, “What’s a mouse?”
Orthodontia exploded following World War II, which explains the purpose of that particular global conflict. Whole generations of Americans embraced the dream of straight teeth. George Washington’s shame at wearing dentures had been vindicated. Perfection of American teeth places them apart from the hideous teeth of their once-colonial masters. The British can have their kings and queens and cups of tea, but look at their teeth. A frowning Lord Cornwallis had his military band play “The World Turned Upside Down” while surrendering to the Americans. Cornwallis may have frowned over the outcome of the American Revolution, but Americans turned that frown upside down and have the smile to prove it.