What Bizarre Relics Tell Us About Presidents’ Lives

For Presidents’ Day, National Geographic investigates why we save such intimate artifacts of Washington and Lincoln.

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Students look at a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s second life mask at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

George Washington is famous for leading patriot troops in the American Revolution, for being the first president of the newly independent United States … and for having false teeth. One of the most persistent myths about the president is that his teeth were made of wood. While he had many sets of falsies throughout his life, the most complete surviving set of Washington’s dentures is made of human teeth, animal teeth, and a piece of ivory.

That set is on display at Washington’s former home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. There’s also a cast of his face in New York City, and locks of his hair around the country. If these artifacts seem a bit, well, intimate, you should see the relics for Abraham Lincoln: museums have displayed the chair and the clothes he was shot in, the bullet he was shot with, as well as multiple casts of his hands and face. For both Washington and Lincoln, you can visit the rooms and beds they died in.

These men are two of the United States’ most influential presidents … but besides memories, is there any value in saving this stuff?

‘Dental Issues’ Is an Understatement

Washington began losing his teeth in his 20s. By the time he was president, he didn’t have any left.

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George Washington’s only surviving complete set of dentures was made from human teeth, horse teeth, cattle teeth, and elephant ivory. The gums were made of lead.

Being toothless was common for the over-50 crowd in the 18th century, simply because dental hygiene wasn’t that advanced. In those days, having dentures was a status symbol.

Washington’s dentures weren’t functional the way modern false teeth are. He couldn’t eat with them, he couldn’t talk with them, and, because they were spring-wired to pop open, they were extremely painful to wear—he had to strain to keep his mouth shut. Understandably, he only wore them for portraits and public appearances. And it’s only recently that Washington’s teeth came out again.

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George Washington’s life mask was made in 1785, a few years before he became president. It is currently at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.

“For a long time, in fact until 20 years ago, the dentures were not ever placed on public display,” says Susan Schoelwer, senior curator at Mount Vernon. “It was thought that it was sort of an invasion of privacy to show Washington’s teeth, and that it was indelicate.” But they were eventually brought out because “it was something that people were interested in,” she says. “And it is the most asked about item in the museum.”

Washington’s teeth tell us about historical changes in dental hygiene, but they also reveal something about his endurance. Because Washington lost about a tooth a year between his 20s and his 50s, “he must have been in pain much of the time,” Schoelwer says. That means that when he was crossing the Delaware in the cold, Washington’s gums were on fire.

I’ve Seen That Face Before

Lincoln had his first life mask made in 1860, after he won the Republican nomination for President. His second life mask was made near the end of the Civil War, just two months before his assassination at Ford’s Theatre.

“Life masks were popular in the 19th century because they created, essentially, almost a duplication of the subject featured,” says Brandon Fortune, chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery. As the first president to deliberately use photography to show the public what he looked like, Lincoln thought it was important to create accurate molds of his face that could be used by artists (his first life mask was the model for the Lincoln Memorial).

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The chair that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Many people think the stain at the top is Lincoln’s blood; it’s actually grease from the hair of people who sat in the chair before him.

The masks were made only five years apart, but looking at them side-by-side, Lincoln seems to have aged decades. Scholars attribute this incredible change to the physical toll that the war took on him. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay even remarked that the second mask had “a look as of one on whom sorrow and care had done their worst.”

Lincoln’s masks tell a story, but what does the bullet that killed him do? Unlike Washington, Lincoln has the added draw of “assassination tourism,” and museum artifacts like the clothes and chair he was shot in seem to invite a morbid curiosity.

Heather Hoagland, exhibitions and collections manager at Ford’s Theatre, says these objects do serve a purpose because they show Lincoln as “a human being, rather than as the legendary figure that we’ve all come to know.” And she may have a point.

Legends on pedestals don’t have flaws, but human beings do. As some of Friday’s tweets about #ThingsLincolnDidntSay have pointed out, Lincoln was no saint: in an early debate, the Great Emancipator said that he didn’t support “the social and political equality of the white and black races.” And like many founding fathers, Washington owned slaves. These celebrated figures were human, and not everything they did is worthy of being chiseled out of marble. They made mistakes, changed their minds.

In the past few decades, presidential museums have been grappling with this, and evolving to show fuller, more complicated versions of our lionized leaders. Sometimes, this means they have to get out the teeth.

Follow Becky Little on Twitter.

WATCH: From humble beginnings to a tragic end, follow the events that shaped the life of Abraham Lincoln.

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