For much of my childhood, around once a year or so, my parents would drive me across town to a new orthodontist’s office, where they’d receive yet another written recommendation for braces to send to our insurance provider. After the company inevitably declined to cover the cost, for any one of a dozen reasons—my teeth were moving too much, or they weren’t in enough disorder, or they were in too much disorder to make braces worthwhile without some surgery—we’d immediately start strategizing for the next year.
Today, some 4 million Americans are wearing braces, according to the American Association of Orthodontists, and the number has roughly doubled in the U.S. between 1982 and 2008. The dental braces we know today—a series of stainless-steel brackets fixed to each tooth and anchored by bands around the molars, surrounded by thick wire to apply pressure to the teeth—date to the early 1900s. But cultural and social concerns about crooked teeth are much older than that.
Some of the earliest medical writings speculate on the dangers of dental disorder, a byproduct of evolution that left homo sapiens with smaller jaws and narrower dental arches (to accommodate their larger cranial cavities and longer foreheads). In Hippocrates’s Corpus Hippocraticum, he notes that people with irregular palate arches and crowded teeth were “molested by headaches and otorrhea [discharge from the ear].” The Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus recommended that children’s caregivers use a finger to apply daily pressure to new teeth in an effort to ensure proper position. Egyptian mummies have been found with gold bands around some of their teeth, which researchers believe may have been used to close dental gaps with catgut wiring.