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The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Colin Jones

(London Times)

The Smile Revolution is an education and an entertainment, a rare enough pairing, but the more so in this niche, not to say cavity, subject. Dentistry has never had an extensive popular literature, but Colin Jones's book, with its charming cover of the first painted smile in Paris, could spark a revolution in its subject. The greatest benefit of living in the 21st century may not be the internet or the early morning cup of tea, but modern pain-free dentistry. As Jones so richly describes, the pains and pleasures of mouth medicine developed in 18th-century Paris, as a direct offshoot of the Enlightenment, and a bizarre challenge to courtly strictures at Versailles.

The official portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701) shows the 63-year-old French monarch in sumptuous robes, posed like a ballet dancer in neat shoes, full wig and a cane. He turns a fine pair of legs. This message of supreme power in perfect health is contrasted by the king's mouth, displayed like the rest of the royal person as he commanded to be seen: 'hollow cheeks and wrinkled mouth reveal a ruler with not a tooth in his head,' as Jones, a historian at Queen Mary, University of London, puts it. Extraordinary as it may seem today, teeth were an encumbrance, particularly to the court and the aristocracy. Blasted by tobacco and sugar (the duc de Beaufort was said to consume 4 kilos of sugar a day), teeth rotted, breath stank and mouths ulcerated to the extent that for the upper classes teeth were better out than in, and a sunken cheek was the new chic.

It follows that while bad teeth cause salivation, spluttering and mispronunciation, their absence compromises facial expression. Thus it was a bad career move in the court of Louis XIV to show any kind of emotion or mood through the face: don't smile, don't open your mouth, certainly don’t laugh. Instead, a pasty face cream, laced with metals that also rotted teeth, was de rigueur, and created in that vast palace seas of expressionless white faces like a convention of meerkats in thrall to the king and the increasingly unstable status quo. It followed that smiles or laughter were considered signs of poor breeding or emotional disorder, denoting not camaraderie or gaiety of heart but rather social distance. At Versailles the “smile of malignity” was the only smile around.

Meanwhile, in Paris, gaiety, pleasure and the flighty rococo social round was in full swing. You could laugh in Paris, you could flash pearly white teeth, you could, above all, smile. Sensibility, as expressed by Voltaire, Moliere, and the novels of Madame de Genlis, was discovered to be a powerful weapon: in the shifting and dangerous politics of mid-18th century Paris, the smile of sensibility 'shaped up as a political missile targeted at the facial regime still dominant at the royal court.'

When in 1789 revolution came, those who fired up a nation had some of the healthiest teeth in Europe. For decades the Rue St Honore, the swankiest part of town, had been the centre of Parisian dentistry. You could stroll along the river, drop in to a dentist to have a molar removed, and stroll on again. 'Where once there had been ugliness,' Jones tells us, 'there should be grace and good looks; where the pains of indigestion, comfort; where showers of spit, an agreeable and unembarrassing dryness . . . For the vision of good teeth and an agreeable smile was now no chimera; it was [in Paris] within the grasp of all.'

It may be that the characteristic French insistence on proper pronunciation has its root in the dental revolution that empowered new clarity in speech. So the smiling self-portrait of Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1787, sent an emotional, revolutionary signal. Never have five little white teeth between ruby lips carried so potent a charge. We might now be concerned by an ill-placed nipple, but then it was the teeth that did it.

The Parisian dental revolution prompted rapid advances in understanding of the pathology of the mouth, it enriched dentists, and created a new regime of confidentiality in dental surgery. This was a leap away from the public tooth-pullers of the past, like Le Grand Thomas who set up stall with canopy and chair on the Pont-Neuf, and would pull anybody's tooth out with theatrical effect for the baying crowd. Now, dentists marketed 'opiat', 'elixir' and 'essence' to clean and whiten teeth and to suppress pain. They made and sold a new invention, the toothbrush, suggesting that a toothbrush in the bathroom is as much a product of the rococo as the cabriole leg on a chair. But while the toothbrush became ubiquitous, the revolution in dentistry and the dawn of the smile did not. The Terror put paid to that as to so much else. Colin Jones drills into his subject with wit, clarity and fine theatrical flourish, and leads one to reflect on why the severed heads displayed in the Place de la Concorde had some of the flashiest smiles of all.

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