Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Dentures, dolly mixtures, and white, white Ultrabrite

Gene Kelly's whiter-than-white smile in the final photo of my last post reminds me that back in the early 1950s a gloriously complete, even, unchipped, and brilliantly white set of teeth, set in healthy pink gums, was the sole preserve of those who could afford expensive dental treatment. Which meant Hollywood stars, royalty and the rich - and hardly anyone else.

The rest of the population made do. And without a lifetime of NHS dental care behind them - not in the 1950s, when the NHS was less than ten years old - it showed.

Many adults, particularly if they came from what were once known as the 'working classes', had never had any kind of preservative or cosmetic dentistry, and when teeth decayed, pulling them out was the standard remedy. After that, they lived with the gaps. When I was young, nearly everyone I saw around Barry, young or old, had gaps between their teeth where an extraction had taken place. Some had more gaps than teeth! it was a sign that you probably weren't well off. But it was so usual, there wasn't any particular stigma attached to it, not so far as I recall.

The better-off, if they thought it important to take care of their teeth - and not everyone did think it very important - could avoid extractions, and have instead fillings and all kinds of other treatments, though not of course the range available today. People like my parents could aspire to a mouth full of usable but no doubt yellowish teeth (smoking was universal, of course), many of them crooked, and one or two definitely prone to giving constant trouble.

Really good dental care (and that Hollywood Smile) wasn't within common reach. Extractions, and the fitting of dentures, were still standard once teeth got beyond straightforward rescue. Dentures were an uncomfortable nuisance. I remember my Mum complaining how badly-fitting hers were. A lot of people didn't bother with them.

Children's teeth were in no better state. The wartime sweet ration ended in 1953 and after that kids glutted themselves on all kinds of confectionery, with predictable consequences. I was no different, when I had pocket money to spend. If it hadn't been for sweets, I would now have far less in the way of fillings. And fewer crowns.

But at least my teeth are all still there, which is an achievement when you consider the abuse they suffered when I was young. One thing I remember about my dentist in Barry was that after every visit, which invariably entailed a filling, I was given a handful of little sweets called 'dolly mixtures'. The ideal thing! Was it well-intentioned, to console a child with a sore mouth? Or an act of cynicism, to make a return visit all that more likely? Who knows.

I did at least stay out of the hands of any practitioners from the Sweeney Todd School of Dentistry - the butchers who ruined many a mouth.

All the above is of course leading up to a hot update on my own teeth.

If you cast your mind back, I was going to have a crown fitted to a top-row tooth just before Christmas. I did. It has been excellent. Not the slightest problem. And of course, it instantly transforms a heavily-filled molar (with silver fillings) into a perfect, gloriously white molar. Allowing me to open my mouth, and positively bray with shrieking laughter, like a horse who has got the joke. A £405 joke, that is.

Then, just last week, it was the turn of another tooth on the other side of my mouth. Same kind of heavily-filled molar, one with a crack in it that was getting sensitive. Not a crown this time. A big white filling. That's now done and dusted too. All discomfort gone. I can chew with confidence again on both sides of my mouth. Wonderful! It too is gloriously dazzling to the eye, and worth another open-mouthed hoot of mirth. £85 worth, in fact.

Here I am, gaping in the sun on Frensham Common a few days ago. The rearmost teeth visible, and facing each other, are my new crown (nearest, behind the last two old-style fillings) and the new white filling (furthest away):

Unfortunately, this is not exactly a dazzling, oh-my-poor-eyes-where's-my-sunglasses 'Hollywood Smile'. It isn't even a Hollywood face. But hey ho, it's a face and mouth that are gradually getting better, and they're not bad for sixty-two. In my humble opinion, that is.

And who remembers the ads for Ultrabrite toothpaste on 1970s TV? The Ultrabrite Smile That Got You Noticed? Ads that pushed at you the notion that amazingly white teeth were very, very sexy, and got you the attention of a Dream Man?

I don't mean these ads for the American market, although they are very funny, and well worth a look:

I mean another ad that appeared on British TV screens in the mid-70s. It features beach-loving, disco-loving young people flashing winning smiles at each other and pairing off. It was sung in a British voice by a trendy-sounding band, and was altogether much zippier. I can't find a video for it, but it had the line:

Extra Strength Taste in a zingy toothpaste
That's white, white Ultrabrite!

And ended:

White, white Ultrabrite... [fades out]

Ah! Those were the days.


  1. Ah, those were the days. And it wasn't just Ultrabright; do you remember....
    You'll wonder where the yellow went
    when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent

    1. I do indeed, and will expect to hear your very own arrangement for ukulele when I see you next!



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