They say a smile is worth a thousand words. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was more than that, as there was a time that dentures were made from dead men’s teeth—dead soldiers’ teeth, to be specific. If you still have your complete set of teeth, then that’s something worth smiling about. This story, however, might make you cringe a bit.

In 1815, the Caribbean colonies gave the British Empire a steady source of sugar. Who can resist all those sweet desserts that they could now make? As a result, tooth decay became a huge problem, but only for the rich who could afford those sweet treats. Not only that, but attempts of teeth whitening using acidic solutions also wore away enamels. That being the case, the demand for dentures for those who can afford them increased.

While there were dentures made from ivory, people were dissatisfied and were looking for other options. In fact, according to British Dental Association, “The whole of the denture, teeth, and gums, were made of china. In their favor, they were more hygienic. However, they were brittle. The colors weren’t very realistic, and generally, they did not fit well. They were the subject of a good deal of hilarity at the time.” There were also the porcelain ones, but people wanted dentures that looked real with natural looking teeth.

What could look like real and natural? Real and natural teeth.

Due to the high demand, advertisements that call for several human teeth began popping, like this one:

Call for human teeth through advertisement. BDA MUSEUM/BBC

Live donors came in, usually the poorest in the society (because you should be desperate enough to sell and allow people to yank out your teeth). The thing is, live donors were not infinite, and the rich people would rather wear dentures from some poor people’s teeth instead of slowing down on the sweets and practicing good oral hygiene, apparently.

Teeth of the poorest in society being yanked out. BDA MUSEUM/BBC

What else is there to do?

CoinciDENTALly, the Napoleonic war just ended, and the recent battle of Waterloo meant there were lots of dead soldiers who didn’t need their teeth anymore, and they were piling up. The recently-killed soldiers were attractive to looters, troops, and scavengers— they would bring pliers with them and pull soldiers’ teeth out. Usually, the molars were left because they were difficult to pull out and also difficult to shape and turn into dentures.