History of braces – how we got where we are today

People have had teeth issues since time immemorial. The first orthodontic braces date back as far as 400-300 BC! Dental braces are one of the most effective ways to achieve best teeth alignment and they’ve only become more sophisticated with time. Today, we have all sorts of braces, from traditional metal braces to wildly popular Invisalign. But where and how did it all begin? What is the history of braces? Join us as we take a trip through time and show you how braces have got to where they are today.

What are teeth braces?

To put it simply, teeth braces are devices that orthodontists use to place teeth into proper alignment and straighten them. Braces have a wide variety of applications and are used to treat numerous malocclusions such as crossbite, overbite, deep bite, gaps between teeth, and so on. The way teeth braces work is through force and pressure that is applied to the teeth over time. To put it simply, braces leverage solid engineering principles. They apply mild, yet calculated, pressure on the teeth, which then makes the teeth naturally straighten into the correct position. Too much force and the patient would lose some of their teeth. That is why the brace treatment lasts for as long as it does.

person wearing braces
Braces apply gentle, but firm, pressure over a long period of time.

Almost every brace type has four basic elements: Brackets, archwire, ligature elastic, and bonding material. The archwire is used to put pressure on the brackets which then puts pressure on the teeth. If there is a need to apply force in a specific direction, rubber bands or even springs may be used.

Brace types

There are several types of braces, such as:

  • Traditional (metal) braces – These braces include brackets that attach to the front of the patient’s teeth, and fit around each tooth. They feature flexible archwires that hold the brackets/bands together.
  • Lingual braces – These braces attach to the backs of your teeth, making them harder to see.
  • Clear aligners – So-called “invisible braces”, clear aligners are plastic trays that fit onto your teeth. The benefit of aligners is that the patients may remove them at will. However, they should be worn at least 22 hours per day in order to work.
  • Ceramic braces – Ceramic braces are exactly the same as metal braces but the brackets are made out of ceramic. This improves the visual appeal and retains the functionality of traditional metal braces. This brace type can also be made out of gold, other clear materials, or even out of stainless steel.

Teeth braces have a long and varied history. They were not always as elaborate as they are today. To fully understand the way braces have “traveled” to get to this point, we need to go way back to ancient history.

The ancient history of braces

The first braces are rumored to date as far as 400BC. While there is no way to confirm this 100%, archaeologists unearthed several mummified corpses that had metal bands wrapped around their teeth. At that time, Catgut (cord made from natural fibers) was used to close the gaps in the teeth. The next people to use braces for burying their dead were the Etruscans. They wanted to prevent teeth from collapsing in the afterlife. Even they knew how age affects dental health.  Fast forward to the Roman era, archeologists found a tomb of a person who had their teeth bound with gold wire. This was later documented to be a ligature wire, an elastic and small wire that the dentists of that age used to affix the arch wire to the brace bracket.

But the most famous person to wear braces was Cleopatra. She used similar braces to those found in the Roman tomb. In the early days, braces were considered to be something that only the “elite” could afford. In those days, people who had knowledge of orthodontics were very rare and highly sought after. It is only in the 18th century that braces experienced their true “revolution”.

egyptian hieroglyphs
Egyptians were one of the first people to utilize teeth braces.

History of braces – 18th century

When you mention revolution, most people first think of France. The French revolution was legendary, after all. It is no wonder then that a French dentist was the first to revolutionize teeth braces. Pierre Fauchard (often called the “Father of orthodontics”), published his book “The Surgeon Dentist” in 1669. The book contains various methods for teeth straightening alongside other dental practices. Fauchard used a method that utilized a device named “Bandeau”, which was a piece of iron that resembled a horseshoe. The French dentist utilized this device to expand the palate of his patients.

After Fauchard, it was another Frenchman who expanded the brace theory. Louis Bourdet, the king’s own dentist was an avid follower of Fauchard’s methods. He went on to publish his own book, titled “The Dentist’s Art”, in which he perfected the Bandeau that Fauchard invented. Furthermore, Bourdet is credited with being the first dentist (on the record, that is), to recommend premolar teeth extraction. This procedure stimulates jaw growth and helps alleviate teeth crowding. Teeth extraction before fitting braces became a mainstay shortly after that, and orthodontists across the world adopted the practice.

History of braces – 19th century

After Bourdet, numerous other dentists improved upon the idea of “Bandeau”. It is in the 19th century that the science of orthodontics was officially formed. Wire crib was introduced in 1819, by Delabarre, and gum elastics in 1943 by Maynard. In 1950, the first recorded dentist to cut rubber tubes into bands was Tucker. The first article on orthodontics was written by Norman William Kingsley in 1858. Several years later, in 1880, he went to publish “Treatise on Oral Deformities”, one of the most important orthodontic books of that age. The first one to suggest that mild force could be used at timed intervals in order to move teeth was John Nutting Farrar. Farrar also wrote two very important publications, two volumes of “A Treatise on the Irregularities of the Teeth and Their Corrections”.

an old book, signifiyng the history of braces
Some of the most important publications were published in the 19th century.

During the 19th century, more and more dentists were hopping on the brace “bandwagon”. One of the more notable inventors was Dr.Sc. Barnum. He created the dental dam that is in use to this day. Not the exact same as Barnum used, of course, but a version of it is still found in modern dental practices. This dental dam included a very thin piece of latex that the dentist fits around the patient’s teeth. This latex serves to protect the gums from the necessary teeth work. Without that thin piece of latex, there was no way to fit traditional braces without damaging the gums in the process.

Even though orthodontics was making leaps and bounds, it is not until the 20th century that they took the shape that we know today. All the way until the 1890s, dentists across the world thought that teeth straightening requires the removal of several teeth.

A brief history of malocclusions

Before we continue, it is important to understand that malocclusions were not always defined as they are today. In case you don’t know, malocclusion simply means that the teeth are not properly aligned. But there are several classes of malocclusions, such as Class I, Class II, etc. However, the term and classification were not invented until the early 20th century. An American dentist, Edward Angle, was the first to introduce the classification system which is used to this date. The system serves as a guide for dentists to describe how crooked the patient’s teeth are, as well as how the teeth fit together and in which way they are pointing. Angle later founded the very first college of orthodontics, and created the American Society of Orthodontia, a precursor to the American Association of Orthodontists.

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History of braces – 20th century

The first “modern” braces required wrapping wire around every single tooth that needed to be straightened. This was due to the fact that, at the time, there were no bonding techniques strong enough to temporarily fasten the wire to the teeth. As you might imagine, this procedure was far from pleasant. Not to mention that the people capable of performing it were exceptionally rare. Also, at the time, dentists had to work with any materials they had access to.

The materials that were used to create modern braces were quite varied, including zinc, gold, and ivory. Due to its ability to be heated under somewhat low temperatures, gold was the most popular metal used for braces. However, gold has a tendency to soften over time and was not as practical as some other metals. Nevertheless, since braces were still a “rich man’s” domain, gold was always in demand.

gold bars
The history of braces is peculiar. Did you know that gold was one of the most popular materials for teeth braces?

But everything changed in the 1970s, with stainless steel and the introduction of dental adhesives. The two in combination made brace fitting a lot less painful, as well as less damaging to the teeth. Furthermore, until then braces had to be worn for an extremely long time. Since the 1970s, teeth braces have undergone a second “revolution”, to become what we know today. These days, traditional metal braces are still in use but there are many other options.

A modern “miracle” – Invisalign

Invisalign is the current pinnacle of brace technology. It was created in 1997, by a Stanford University graduate, Zia Chishti. Chishti took the ancient concept of a retainer, similar to one found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and adapted it to straighten teeth. Where Egyptians used the retainer method to keep teeth straight, Chishti theorized that the same method could be used for teeth straightening, as well. Alongside his partner, Kelsey Wirth, Chishti introduced 3D imaging software in his first Invisalign design. This software was used to map out the patient’s mouth and create custom aligners that required no wire tightening. Furthermore, as you may already know, Invisalign does away with the “metal mouth” that comes with traditional metal braces. The first Invisalign available to the public came in 2000, after three years of meticulous testing.

While Invisalign can not be used to straighten the teeth of every single individual, it is by far the most popular brace on the market today. Even though wearing traditional metal braces never went out of style, these days patients have access to clear braces, ceramic braces, and all other different types of braces. One of the main reasons why traditional metal braces are still hanging around is the fact that they are applicable to almost any malocclusion.

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Braces of today

These days, we have all sorts of braces. Modern orthodontists utilize temperature-sensitive materials and nickel-titanium archwires, a far cry from braces used roughly five thousand years ago. However, the base principles that were founded in the ages past are still being used to this day. Even Invisalign was founded on the principles of ancient Egyptians. Even though today’s technology is far more advanced, there is still room for improvement. New and exciting dental tech trends that are changing the industry are emerging every year, and they bring the prospect of ushering braces into a new golden era. We already have painless procedures and drastically shorter wear times, with more customizability than was ever imagined. But the technology does not stop there, improvements are made by the year.

As mentioned previously, today we have “space age” wires. These were originally intended for use for solar panels and satellite antennae but their orthodontic potential was quickly discovered. These nickel-titanium wires are a mainstay of today’s brace technology. Who knows what will happen in a few years, will someone discover a new material? Or perhaps the braces themselves will be reimagined completely? Looking at the history of braces, there were numerous discoveries along the way but the general principle remained the same. Therefore, we might not get a complete overhaul but we can definitely expect improvements in the coming years.

For more information on invisible braces, as well as the best orthodontic practices, feel free to browse and explore the rest of the Consumer Opinion Guide. Our expert staff works around the clock to bring you the latest orthodontic developments.

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