Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Inky Mouth

Artificially enameling of the teeth became all the rage during the sixteenth century in Italy.Wealthy  Italian ladies had their teeth enameled in a rainbow of colors. This probably started to cover badly stained or rotten teeth. A white enamel was used to cover these flaws. But later it evolved into its own fad, and healthy teeth might be enameled in a variety of colors, usually they opted for red or green, but the most desired colors were pastels.

Extensive use of sugar was known to blacken the teeth and black teeth became an Elizabethan status symbol. This fashion fad was so popular amongst Upper Class Elizabethans that cosmetics were used to create an illusion of black teeth. Only the wealthy could afford to use sugar.

During Imperial Russia during the 17th to 18th Centuries, women, dyed their teeth black. Their diets were low in vitamins and calcium which made their teeth discolored. To whiten them, noble Russian women would use mercury powders, this process caused the teeth to decay. In order to hide this, the women would rub a black substance called ackli over their teeth.

In areas of Southeast Asia,the cultural reasons for tooth blackening is due to a belief that only wild animals, demons and savages had long white teeth. Originally, some Vietnamese would blacken their teeth in order to not be mistaken for an evil spirit.

 The chewing of betel nut is quite widespread in Southeast Asia – it actually turns teeth brown but some Vietnamese women have their teeth lacquered for beauty reasons.


The chemistry of tooth blackening is complicated and the betel chewing is only a part of the process of deliberate tooth staining. In Vietnam a red resin obtained from secretions of an insect that sucks the sap of a host tree, is used as a dye to further the appearance. This dye is next diluted with lemon juice of alcohol and after being stored for a couple of days the dye is applied with pressure to the teeth. Next an application of iron or copper covers it in blue-black enamel-like surface.

A familiar Vietnamese folk song sums up the old standards of feminine beauty in the following verse:
"I love you, first because you are wearing your hair in a rooster tail; second due to your charming speech; third, since you've got dimpled cheeks, and fourth because your glossy blackened teeth exceed jet in their beauty"

Ohaguro is a Japanese custom of dyeing one's teeth black. It was most popular in Japan until the Meiji era, as well as in the southeastern parts of China and Southeast Asia. Dyeing was mainly done by married women, though occasionally men did it as well. It was also beneficial, as it prevented tooth decay, in a similar fashion to modern dental sealants. Due to the odor and labor required for the process, as well as a feeling among young women that they were aging, ohaguro was done only by married women, unmarried women who were older than 18, prostitutes and geisha. For rural people, ohaguro was done only at times of special celebrations, such as matsuri, wedding ceremonies, and funerals.

 The main ingredient was a smelly dark-brown colored liquid made of an acetic acid called kanemizu (かねみず;) with iron dissolved in it. Gallnut powder and tannin powder were blended in, turning it non-water soluble. When the liquid combined with the tannins, it would turn black. Coating the teeth with this liquid helped to prevent tooth decay and enamel decay. The dye had to be applied once a day or once every few days.

Ohaguro is black tooth wax used by Maiko for that brief period of ‘Erikae’ — turning their collar from red to white — when they graduate from Maiko to Geisha. Ohaguro was originally done with black ink several times a week to maintain the color, in modern times, a black wax is used and rubbed onto the teeth with the finger. Traditionally this practice was for the wealthy, female members of the household would begin Ohaguro upon reaching adulthood.


As a convenient prescription, a fine powder of gallnut powder, sulfuric acid, and oyster shell could also be applied to the teeth, though this never really caught on.

In theatrical plays, ink mixed with turpentine was used, though these days, ink mixed with tooth wax is used.

The Moors were also fond of the blackened teeth, in a love poem, a man tells of his ideal beauty:

The Inky Mouth:
O strange and lovely sight
A smudge of ink, all staining
A luscious mouth containing
The wine of sweet delight
Like pitch, a flask of pure
And sparkling liquor lining
Withe the moon's crescent shining
Upon a night obscure.

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