Studying smoking in the past

Today’s blog post comes from one of our Masters Students, Clare De Joux-Perry, who last year spent some time looking at the teeth of the people of Milton in search of evidence of their smoking habits…

Our teeth are the only part of our skeletons that regularly interact with our surrounding environment. Every day they are exposed to a huge variety of influences – what we eat and drink, how we use them as tools, how well we clean and take care of them… Since our teeth do not regrow or heal, all alterations to them are preserved forever. Over time our teeth are moulded by these factors, keeping a diary of our dietary, health, and cultural practices right in our mouths. For a bioarchaeologist, teeth can be an incredibly useful lens to see into a person’s life with just their skeleton – they just need to read that diary. 

Smoking was an important cultural practice in rural New Zealand – and this definitely included Milton. Smoking can leave very distinct markers on teeth both temporarily and permanently. Staining, tar build-up on the surface of the teeth, and an increased risk of oral diseases may be interpreted as evidence of smoking when found in the teeth of a person.

However, one marker is particularly definitive when investigating smoking – the clay pipe facet. These are rounded notches carved into the teeth where someone has habitually grasped a clay tobacco pipe in their mouth. Historically, pipe facets are often found in the teeth of hard labourers and workers who used both their hands, since holding their pipes between their teeth meant that they could keep smoking throughout their work. Milton’s early settlers were largely labourers, and pipe facets are common in the people of the St. John’s cemetery.

How are pipe facets formed?

To explain this, I’ll quickly go through the basic structure of a tooth:

Anatomy of a human molar (Picture: K.D Schroeder, Human Tooth Diagram from Wikimedia commons. License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0

On the very outside of each tooth is a layer of enamel, the hardest substance in the body and almost completely inorganic. Enamel is nearly 100% mineral, meaning that it can’t heal or even respond to any stress it encounters. Once enamel is eroded away it’s never coming back. Underneath the enamel is the dentine, a layer that distributes nutrients throughout the tooth and supports the enamel. Since dentine is organic (i.e. properly alive), it can react and to try to fight whatever is harming the tooth – and damage at this layer will hurt. Since dentine is alive, it’s filled with active nerve endings meaning it can and will feel pain. All the nutrients for the dentine are provided by the very centre of the tooth, the pulp chamber. This bubble contains all the squishy bits that connect the tooth to the nervous system and blood stream, both bringing nutrients to the tooth and taking away toxins and waste products. 

Pipe facets are essentially big gashes caused by persistent pipe smoking. Holding a clay pipe in between teeth for long periods eventually grinds away the enamel on those teeth. The clay particles in the pipe rub on the enamel like sandpaper…until eventually the live dentine is exposed. 

What are the effects of having a pipe facet?

The first side effect of having a pipe facet would be pain, especially when consuming cold and hot food or drink that would trigger the exposed nerve endings. Even more dangerous is the risk of any bacteria from our mouths infiltrating the dentine and getting down into the pulp chamber – from there it’s a highway straight into the bloodstream, not to mention the risk of the pulp chamber dying and your tooth falling out. However the body has a defence mechanism against losing enamel – secondary (a.k.a. reactionary) dentine. This is a hard substance which forms around the compromised dentine to protect it from the dangers of the outside world, but there is a still a spanner in the works. Since pipe smoking was a daily long-lasting habit, it runs the risk of continually grinding away that secondary dentine as fast as the body could produce it. And just to make matters worse, pipes were difficult to keep clean and often used for long periods of time – bacteria would not have had a hard time using the surface of the pipe itself to get into the tooth. 

Two almost accidental factors of pipe smoking may have helped dispel some of the risks of infection and tooth loss, albeit temporarily. Firstly, the heat of the smoke being drawn through the pipe was hot enough to cause rough ulcers on the tongues of the smokers, and may have been hot enough to discourage or even kill off some bacteria. It may have also potentially ‘cauterised’ the nerve endings in the adjacent dentine, which may have stopped some of the pain whilst smoking. 

However overall a pipe facet does not bode well for the oral health of its owner, even without taking into account the effects of tobacco addiction on the soft tissues of the mouth, the throat, and the lungs.

 Why smoke then?

It’s easy to look at just some of its side effects and think, ‘why would anyone keep smoking once these things started happening?’. However, tobacco smoking is not only a social activity, providing a moment of respite for workers to pause and talk, but also a physiological and psychological balm. Life in the colonial south was hard, labour intensive, and often without many luxuries. Settler communities like Milton were small, and communication with European homelands would have been a long and arduous ordeal. The loneliness, the “ennui” that crept into peoples’ minds was so prevalent that it is referenced in contemporary newspapers of the time, which recommend smoking a pipe as a way to ward of those unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

Excerpt from the Lake Country Press, Dec 1885 (Vol III, Issue 175, 31. Accessed via Papers Past – National Library of New Zealand –

It’s always important to remember that people in the past are still just people like us, doing each day as best we can.

Clare De Joux-Perry

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