A word to all the pre-teens out there who are suffering through constant taunts of "metalmouth": at least you're in good company. Braces go all the way back to the days of the mummies; some of them have been found with crude metal bands wrapped around their teeth. Archaeologists think those bands were connected by catgut, stretched taut to pull the teeth together. (Mmm, sanitary!) Hippocrates and Aristotle are both on record wondering about ways to straighten teeth, too, and the Etruscans (precursors of the Romans) buried their dead with their dental appliances still installed. One Roman who died in Egypt even had a super-deluxe version; his teeth were bound with gold wire, which may make him the first recorded person in history to sport a blinged-out grill.
Interest in having a straight, neat smile apparently resurged in the 1700s, right about the time that George Washington was popularizing the idea of wooden teeth. Oddly enough, it was the French, those global arbiters of chic, who introduced the most terminally unfashionable accessory of all time. In 1728, French dentist Pierre Fauchard published a book called the The Surgeon Dentist, describing an extraordinarily painful-sounding device called a bandeau. A horseshoe-shaped piece of metal, it supposedly helped expand the arch, although we think it may have been primarily intended as a torture device. But the dentist to the King of France liked it too, and the bandeau stayed in vogue until 1819, when Christophe Delabarre came up with the wire crib, which was a lot closer to today's braces.
Over the next 100 years, dentists would make huge strides in understanding how the teeth worked (and why they so often fell out). But braces themselves largely remained unchanged until the mid-20th century. Most were made from gold, platinum, silver, steel, gum rubber, or vulcanite, although orthodontists occasionally turned instead to ivory, zinc, copper, brass, or—believe it or not—wood. The wires were almost always made of gold, however, because the metal was so easy to shape. (Stainless steel was widely available, but it didn't replace gold until the late 1950s.) And all of them wrapped entirely around the teeth. Dentists didn't figure out how to glue the brackets onto the front of the teeth until the mid-70s, and they didn't move them to the backside of the teeth until the mid-80s.
This article was excerpted from 'In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything,' which is available in the mental_floss store.