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Bad breath is something we all deal with from time to time. It’s the kind of thing that comes to mind as you whisper sweet nothings to your lover, or shake hands with your potential boss as you step into a job interview. Our fear of bad breath likely stems from a biological repulsion humans have to odorous smells that may indicate someone has a lack of hygiene or lack of health that means more likelihood of carrying disease. 

Also known as halitosis, bad breath occurs as the bacteria in the body digest and break down food compounds. Especially common after one consumes ginger, garlic, alcohol, and other pungent foods that have a strong reaction with bodily acids, bad breath is a social demon that humans have been fighting for literally centuries. 

Today we use mouthwash, gum, and toothbrushes, and toothpaste to combat sickly scents that hijack our breath. But what did people do before such methods and devices even existed?

Dealing with Bad Breath in the 1700s

Even as far back as ancient Egypt people have been inventing clever modes of trying to make their pie-hole smell more like pie and a little less like rotting vegetables. It follows that while people in the 1700s had to have been aware of their bad breath, they didn't have many options for dealing with it as they did not understand the science behind why it occurred in the first place. 

In the late 1700s, the history of dental hygiene took a turn when toothbrushes became a somewhat common item. The toothbrush was first invented in jail by William Addis. He used animal bone and bristles as an effective solution for removing plaque. After this, he acquired a patent and toothbrushes started to be sold to more and more people.

While instruments like toothbrushes and toothpicks did exist, frequently cleaning the mouth was not widely considered necessary and even caused controversy. Famously, Dr. Pierre Fauchard, the “Father of Modern Dentistry” even advised people to clean their teeth with a sponge soaked in brandy rather than brushing with a toothbrush.

That’s why the most common method for staunching bad breath in the 1700s was to chew or suck on plants and herbs that were known to have refreshing qualities and also reduced bacteria in the mouth. Spices like cardamom, cloves, and fennel were also favorites for cleaning teeth, although unfortunately, they can also stain teeth. 

As Our Diets Have Changed, so has Our Breath

Periodontal disease, an oral malady that results from extended periods of dental neglect and high bacteria buildup, was understandably quite common in the 1700s before modes of cleaning the mouth evolved. The condition involves so much bacteria overrunning the teeth that it actually kills them. Mummies from all over the world confirm that this terrible and bad-breath-inducing ailment has run rampant for the majority of human history. 

While we no longer have to worry about that in our age as much as before, there are some other risks we have to worry about more than our ancestors did.

People in the 1700s likely didn’t have as bad breath as we do on a regular basis. One downside to modern-day diets is the high refined sugar content in most of our foods. Sugar destroys the enamel on your teeth, causing bad breath and cavities. Sugar also causes bacteria on your teeth to thrive. Because sugar wasn’t yet widely accessible in the 1700s, people from this time did not have as much to worry about as we do. 

So the next time you're about to be in close quarters with someone and you pop that mint in your mouth, take a moment to be grateful for the long history of bad breath that came before you so that we could enjoy that luxury today!