Late Victorian Dentifrice Pot (Ca. 1890)

“Why Did You Buy a Toothpaste Pot!?”

No, I mean…really! Like…y’know…um…why?

I like antiques which are quirky, interesting, unusual and useful. Emphasis on useful. I don’t like buying anything – even an antique – if I don’t either like it, or can use it, in one way or another. And ever since I discovered that they existed, I decided that I couldn’t wait to have a beautiful antique toothpaste jar on my bathroom counter.

Getting to see such an exquisitely decorated little vessel, which was only put on this earth to serve us toothpaste!…makes the act of brushing one’s teeth twice a day just so much more pleasant – brightened by the fact that you get to scoop your toothpaste out of such a cute little container. And even when you’re not using it, that decorated little pot just looks just so decorative and pretty, sitting there on the shelf, and doing what it does. This is why I wanted one!

Well, that, and I’d been selling a lot of things online lately and I decided to treat myself a bit. I found this at the local flea-market, and thought it’d look good siting on my bathroom counter…

I’ve seen a few of these in my time. Square, round…even rectangular! But this was the first one I’ve ever seen with the gold paint on it…and it just jumped out at me, all shiny in the sunlight. It just looked like such a happy, cheerful little toothpaste pot! I had to have it. Once I got it home, I cleaned it, washed it out, and filled it with fresh toothpaste. Just getting to look at this charming, Victorian antique every morning would be all the motivation that I’d need to brush my teeth every day!

The toothpaste pots of Victorian England were undoubtedly, the most elegant and refined solution ever created, to the answer the age-old problem of how to package effective dental hygiene products to a public plagued by halitosis. In this posting, I’ll take a brief look at the history of dental hygiene, and how mankind arrived at the manufacture of these little toothpaste pots, and the contents they once held.

“Taking a Powder…”

These days, we’re so used to things coming in liquid form.

Liquid soap. Liquid toothpaste. Liquid medicines. Liquid deodorants…the list goes on, and on, and on.

And yet, this obsession with all kinds of liquid products is actually a pretty recent one. It wasn’t that long ago that most products that people bought for themselves for private consumption were not sold in liquid form. Medicines were not sold in pill-form or even in syrup-form. They were sold in powder-form, with each dose in folded paper sachets. To ‘take a powder’ was to take a dose of medicine – usually by tipping the powder into a glass of water and stirring it. The resultant diluted powder was gulped down and the dose taken. All kinds of medicines were administered this way, including painkillers or settlers for joint-pain, fever, headaches and upset stomachs.

Soap was sold in soap-powder form or in a hard, chunky block, which you either lathered as-was, or shaved or cut off with a knife. Deodorants were limited to whatever talcum-powder you could smack onto your body to absorb the perspiration from your skin.

And last, but not least – the subject of this posting: Toothpaste!

A Biting History of Dental Care

Throughout history, people have known that if you don’t look after your teeth, all kinds of nasty things can happen to them. They turn black, they crust over, they get infected, they fall out, you get abscesses, and if you get really unlucky like my brother did – you get a root-canal operation (yikes!).

I’ve always been pretty fortunate with my teeth. Like most kids I never took very good care of them (who can ever claim they did?) but after one particularly nasty visit to the dentist, as a teenager, got fed up with the whole debacle, and started methodically scrubbing my teeth twice a day. Since then (apart from one very unpleasant incident a few years ago which I still don’t understand how it happened…), I’ve had pretty good teeth. Not perfect (nobody will have perfect teeth without outside help from a dentist), but pretty good. No major damage or problems in years, apart from the odd hiccup.

Our ancestors were just as aware of the importance of, and the dangers of the neglect of – cleaning one’s teeth properly and regularly. And to combat this problem, they devised a truly staggering array of methods and materials to clean their teeth, from brushing it with ash or fireplace soot, to gargling their mouths with stale urine (delicious!). This last one was a favourite of the Ancient Romans. Urine contains ammonia, which bleaches things white. Basically – piss was the world’s first extra-whitening mouthwash! Also, piss was used to clean linens back in the old days, too – bedsheets and clothing were all soaked in stale piss to let the raw ammonia remove and lift the stains out.

Aren’t you glad we have washing-detergents now?

Anyway, by the Victorian times, mankind had moved on from brushing his teeth with soot and gargling it out with stale urine. The effects of dental neglect were by now very well known, and the effects of dental neglect were not improved by the sudden availability to the public at large, of a large and cheap quantity of sugar!

Previous to the 1800s, all sugar came from sugar-canes – these only grow in tropical regions, which meant that for centuries, sugar was a priceless luxury – indulged in only by the richest people, who could afford the prices of sugar which had been processed, packed and shipped from thousands and thousands of miles away.

When it became known that sugar could be extracted from sugar-beets, which grow in more temperate climates, the price of sugar collapsed, and suddenly what once cost a king’s ransom, the average, workaday man could go out and buy.

The rise in sugar, and an increasing access to more food meant that for the first time in history, people’s teeth were under serious attack. And Victorian dentists and pharmacists came to the rescue – with specially-invented cleaning products!

Victorian Tooth Powders

Despite the labels on the tins (or in this case – pots!) – tooth-paste as we would recognise it, did not actually exist in Victorian times. The technology and science of the era did not permit the consistent manufacture of a paste or gel-like substance which kept well enough and which could be produced to a high-enough quality to clean the teeth on a regular basis. So what happened?

Pharmacists, apothecaries and dentists fell back on their old standby – powders!

The first commercially-produced tooth-cleaners, of a sort, were not tooth-pastes, they were tooth-powders. Often, these concoctions were homemade, using whatever materials could be found. The pharmacist would be constantly mixing, changing and testing, until the right combination of ingredients was reached. The recipe was written down and then repeated whenever a new order for tooth-powder came in.

Common ingredients in Victorian tooth-powders included crushed soap-flakes (for the lathering effect), baking soda, powdered plant-extracts of various kinds (for disinfection), and usually at least one abrasive – brick dust or even powdered china (you know, from broken plates? These were used to scrub off tartar and teeth-stains). All these ingredients were all crushed up in a mortar and pestle, ground up until they were as fine as talcum-powder. A flavouring (for example – oil of peppermint) was then added and mixed in, to give it a pleasant flavour. Then, the finished product was packed up and sold to the public!

For the apothecary or pharmacist, a solid brass mortar and pestle such as this one would’ve been indispensable in their work. Easily cleaned, and nigh indestructible, it would ensure the end product was pure and without contamination. 

Such tooth-powders, or ‘dentifrices’ as they’re called (a ‘dentifrice’ is something that cleans the teeth – it’s not necessarily a powder), while originally made by pharmacists and doctors doing their own, homemade experiments – but once a winning recipe had been discovered, they might well go into fullscale production!

The thing is – how do you sell something like this to the teeth-conscious public? You couldn’t very well sell tooth-powder in paper sachets, and since ‘toothpaste’ wasn’t actually a paste, you couldn’t sell it in a tube, either! And even if it was – the ability to make cheap, throwaway squeeze-tubes (of the kind we buy today) was not possible in Victorian times. The first ones were made of lead!

Because of this, the Victorians instead sold their tooth powders in little ceramic pots…

Victorian Dentifrice Pots

Exactly WHEN people started selling toothpaste in cute little pots is unknown. The earliest dates I can find seem to be the 1870s and 1880s, although this isn’t based on any really solid evidence.

These pots were pretty small – about the size of a modern tin of shoe-polish. They were very simple, too. A base, the sides, the hollow inside to hold the powder, an indented lip, and a lid, which simply sat on top – and that was it! They didn’t screw, latch or lock down like modern toothpaste tubes, or even modern screw-top jars! The lid simply sat on top of the pot – if you tipped it the wrong way, the lid would be in danger of falling off!

Tooth powders were simply dumped into these pots until they were full, and then the full pots were sold to the customers. The pots were likely secured either in throwaway paper boxes, to stop them rattling around, or were just taped shut.

Either way, these pots would’ve graced the dressing-tables, wash-stands and bathroom counters of thousands of people in the late Victorian era, when cost-effective and easy dental-care came into the reach of the masses. And as ever, the claims on the packaging were always the same. Over a century later and nothing has changed! They promised to whiten teeth, remove tartar, and freshen the breath!

I got interested in Victorian toothpaste jars from the moment I realised what they were, mostly because of the sort of novelty aspect of them – they’re so different from how we get our toothpaste today! I mean yes, we get them in nice, brightly-coloured tubes – but there’s something just so satisfying about storing it in a decorated little ceramic pot on the shelf, which you buy once, but clean and refill countless times!

And they look SO much more elegant than those tubes of AIM, PEPSODENT, COLGATE and McCLEANS!

That said, for all their elegance of presentation, and reusability of packaging, brushing your teeth with a tooth-powder was a bit more involved than squirting something onto a brush and stuffing it in your mouth!

To get the powder to stick to the toothbrush, it was necessary to moisten it first. Either by sticking it in your mouth, or by dipping it in water. This allowed the powder to stick to the bristles of the toothbrush (which in Victorian times, were made of wood, and bristled with pig-hair!) so that it wouldn’t fall off and go absolutely everywhere, when you lifted the brush from the pot to your mouth. It was only after you mixed the powder with water that it really ecame ‘tooth-paste’.

Thereafter, the process of cleaning is exactly the same today – except that the Victorians didn’t have fancy-schmancy battery-powered electric toothbrushes like we do!

Victorian toothpaste pots are highly collectible. Numerous manufacturers produced all kinds of styles and patterns, pictures and lettering on the lids of their toothpaste pots. I’ve even seen one or two with words like “Patronised by the Queen” printed on them!

Almost all the decorations, maker’s names, company addresses and printed advertising material on the lids of these pots was applied through a process called transfer-printing. Ceramics with this type of decoration are known as ‘transfer-ware’.

Transfer-Printing

Before the invention of transfer-printing – all the pretty pictures, the flowers, the idyllic scenes, the writing, the company-information…everything that went on every ceramic item ever sold – had to be laboriously painted onto it by hand, by some poor bastard sitting at a table with a brush in his hand! One mistake and the item would be rejected. And it took ages just to paint one tiny little cup, pot or bowl.

This all changed when the labour-intensive, but relatively-speaking – much faster – transfer-printing process was invented in the 1750s. It took a while, but by the 1800s, transfer-printed ceramics was a way of life for many people.

Transfer-printing works pretty simply – You get a copper plate. You engrave the design of whatever it is you want, onto the plate. You warm up the plate and paint on a special mixture of ink. You then laid down a sheet of paper over the inked plate and ran it through a press. This printed the image engraved on the copper onto the sheet of paper. The paper was then trimmed and cut to gain access to the various parts of the design, and then the paper was pressed onto the ceramic object being decorated.

In this way, the print was transferred from the copper to the ceramic. Transfer-printing!

To make it last, the printed ceramic item was then fired in a kiln to set the colours and inks; this dried them permanently and stopped them fading or running. It was a fiddly process, but it was a lot faster than painting or drawing on each individual pot by hand, and then sitting around all day waiting for it to dry! On top of all this, the results were far more consistent – important, when a company’s reputation was at stake!

Yes, you had to engrave the plate, yes you had to print each cup or bowl or plate or saucer one at a time – but in the time it used to take to paint one plate or bowl, dozens of such items could be transfer-printed! It was a fast, cheap, effective way of decorating ceramics, and it made actual sets of ceramics, all featuring the same pattern – a possibility. It was this process which printed all the pretty details on antique pots, like the ones used to sell tooth-powders in. It finally died out in the 1910s and 20s, when faster decoration processes were invented, such as premade decals which could simply be pressed on and then made permanent by painting them in with a clear-coat glaze.

The End of Transfer-Printed Tooth-Powder Pots

Pots like these for all their beauty, did not last especially long. By the early 20th century, they were already dying out. The First World War really saw their end. It wasn’t practical to send thousands of little ceramic jars to the front lines for the troops, all filled with powder. Advances in medicine meant that proper toothpastes were now available, and these could be stored in thin, metal tubes which could be squeezed to release the paste onto a brush in a measured amount. And the tooth-powder pot was relegated to the bathroom of history…

Where Can I Buy a Dentifrice Pot? 

Dentifrice pots are pretty common as far as antiques go. They’re usually dug out of old rubbish-tips and stuff. Complete pots with their lids and bases, without damage or loss of artwork on the lid can go for a pretty penny, especially if the pot is of an odd shape, size, or from a famous company, or if the artwork is particularly fantastic. Most bog-standard toothpaste pots are pretty cheap, though.

You can probably find them easily at most flea-markets and antiques shops (although they’ll cost more in antiques shops). But they are small, common, and pretty – and that does make them highly desirable as a collectible – some people even collect the lids on their own, without looking for the entire pot!

 

Sterling Silver Bowl with Coin – 1895 & 1787

Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes, you don’t.

This time, I got lucky!

It’s the most charming and adorable little silver bowl that I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s made of sterling silver, and has the most amazing respousse patterning on the sides.

It’s late Victorian in manufacture, dating to 1895, just two years before the queen’s diamond jubilee. The detail on this thing just blew me away when I saw it – it’s got clovers and acorns all around the sides, and little flowers all around the rim. Floral motifs were popular in Victorian times, so this definitely fits the period! The sort of curvy-swervy patterning on the bottom looks like a nod to the then-rising movement of Art Nouveau as well.

This bowl was being sold in a local auction-house, and it was one of about half a dozen pieces that I wanted to try and buy. I got viciously outbid on some of the other pieces, and I had my reservations about buying this one. But when the price dropped…and dropped…and dropped…and nobody put up a bid, I decided to pounce, and managed to get a great bargain!

Small silver bowls, plates and cups like this were very common in Victorian times, and I’ve seen many of them in antiques shops, online, in flea-markets and in auction-houses.

Exactly what function they served is debatable, if indeed they did serve one at all! The Victorians were notorious for manufacturing all kinds of silver nicknacks for activities, events, items and niceties that we don’t even think about these days! Things like stamp-holders, card-trays, and even asparagus tongs and pickle forks!

The bowl is not gilt or lined inside in any way, so that suggests that whatever it held, it wasn’t corrosive – so therefore, it wouldn’t have been mustard or salt or something along those lines. Salt and mustard (which has vinegar in it) are both highly corrosive to silver – any silver vessel holding these condiments usually has a blue glass liner, or is gilt (gold-plated) to stop the silver from crusting over and turning black and flaky.

I think the bowl was likely used to hold chocolates or nibbles. Perhaps unsalted nuts or bonbons or something of that sort.

Whoever it was made for, and whatever use they intended for it, one aspect of this bowl really caught my eye – this:

No, your eyes are not deceiving you – that is a coin set into the base of the bowl. Exactly WHY there’s a coin there is anybody’s guess, but there it is.

That said, silver bowls and plates like this with coins set into them aren’t that uncommon, either! I’ve seen several of these over the years, and it seems to have been a perfectly acceptable practice. Some coins were used because they marked significant years, and some, just for decoration, like we see here. Another possible explanation is that the coins were out of circulation anyway – and it was an easy way to use free silver to make something!

The coin is a George III sterling silver shilling, from 1787.

It’s pretty worn, but you can still read the date, as well as the words: “GEORGIVS III DEI GRATIA” (George III, by the Grace of God).

The silversmith’s mark on this piece is for Charles Stuart Harris. He seems to have done a pretty good job of fitting the coin in – both sides are visible, both inside, and outside the bowl.

All in all, it’s a beautiful piece of silver. Well-made and with stunning attention to detail. Its decoration just screams Victorian, and I love the coin – even if it’s almost impossible to read!

The date on the coin - 1787
The date on the coin – 1787