Tooth Folklore in Appalachia

Toothache remedies and folklore in appalachia

In my opinion a toothache is one of the most aggravating and painful problems to have. Lucky for folks today relief is usually just a phone call away.

Back in the day things were a little different. Dentists weren’t plentiful, it was hard to get into town to see one, and even if you could see one you might not have the money needed to pay the bill…well that last part might still be true!

Several years ago, I had a terrible toothache. I kept taking over the counter pain meds and putting off going to the dentist. One night when the the pain was pretty bad, Pap told me to take peroxide and swish it around in my mouth, then take a toothbrush and dip it in the peroxide and brush the tooth as hard as I could-all around it. Well desperate as I was, I did what Pap said. Honestly, for about 15-20 minutes I thought I was going to pass out from the pain, it was almost unbearable, but after about 25 minutes it eased off and actually quit hurting for a while.

As with most ailments there are tons of old medicinal remedies for toothaches in Appalachia.

Appalachian Toothache Remedies I’ve read or heard about:

  • hold liquor in the mouth for several minutes-then swallow
  • chew ragweed leaves
  • put cinnamon oil on the tooth
  • put clove oil on the tooth (I tried this one-couldn’t really tell that it helped)
  • put persimmon juice on the tooth
  • place a piece of cloth soaked in kerosene on the tooth (if you did this one I think you’d have more problems than a toothache)
  • hold a warm bag of ashes, salt, or water on the cheek (I’ve tried this with a hot water bottle-it seemed to help a little)
  • if the cavity is deep in the tooth, the hole can be stuffed with soda, spider webs, aspirin, alum-that was burned, cow manure, or salt (again this one might cause some other issues for you)
  • take a splinter/piece of a tree that has been struck by lightning and pick the cavity
  • get up before sunrise each morning and say a Bible verse for 3 days
  • make a hole in a tree trunk a little higher than the toothache sufferer’s head, cut a piece of their hair, place it in the hole, and plug up the hole

Prevention tips:

  • carry a hog’s head bone in your pocket
  • always put your left shoe on first
  • wear nutmeg around your neck
  • always cut your fingernails on Friday
  • never cut your fingernails on Friday

Other folklore:

  • to dream of losing a tooth is a sign of death
  • If you get too close to a spider-and it counts your teeth-you’ll die

After reading all that, those tooth jumpers don’t sound quite so bad.



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  • Reply
    Vera Guthre
    August 26, 2019 at 9:37 am

    As babies we all wore a Mercury Dime around our neck on a string so we wouldn’t have teething pain. I guess it worked Mama had 5 kids and we all wore the dime. We had that dime in a cup with old coins, the dime had a hole drilled in it. When Mama’s house was broken into the cup was stolen, we used that dime’s description in case someone tried to pawn it. We never got it back.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    August 12, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    Some of those are funny. Although I’ve rarely had trouble with my teeth, I do recall warmed clove oil on a small piece of a cotton ball held on the sore tooth for a while. Can’t remember hearing if that helped or not.
    For years, I’ve brushed my teeth with baking soda before using toothpaste. I think the abrasive nature helps get the scum off the teeth better than toothpaste does, and I also think it has a freshening quality. I also swish with Listerine after brushing, but that’s mostly to keep sinus and ear troubles at bay because I am prone to getting those.
    Prayers everyone has a great weekend (with no toothaches), and a safe one too.
    God bless.

    • Reply
      Joyce P. Phillips
      August 26, 2019 at 9:37 am

      I’m a “senior” and Paregoric, or camphorated tincture of opium, also known as tinctura opii camphorata, i was a traditional tooth ache medicine when I was a child. Thengs were different back then. It’s also a
      patent remedy known for its antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic properties.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    August 11, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    The calcium etc. are already in your teeth buds before they ever erupt. The loss of calcium in your teeth is an old wives tale. The most important time for good strong tooth formation and tooth enamel is due to the health and diet during pregnancy of the mother. Followed by a good diet of the child during bud formation of the permanent teeth and of course brushing, brushing etc. Many children’s baby teeth are lost from decay by letting a baby go to sleep with a bottle of milk in their mouths. Of course everyone knows about sugars, etc. that are not brushed off that begin etching away at teeth in a matter of hours if left on the teeth.
    Once a tooth is constantly hurting (severe pain) the decay is at least 90% or totally into the nerve that comes up thru the root to the pulp in the tooth. Powdered cloves mixed with a drop of mild water and placed on a tiny cotton ball, then placed in a cleaned out cavity will sometimes relieve the pain temporarily. Decay that is into the pulp, causes infection and generally abscess of the tooth. Nothing left to do except a round of antibiotics, a root canal or an extraction.
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS. When I stepped on a nail near the barn at my granny’s, my whole foot was plunged into a bucket of kerosene…ewwww, it hurt. Then I was toted off to the doctor miles away for a tetanus shot.

  • Reply
    August 11, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    I had a wisdom tooth that got infection in it one time and thought I was gonna die with pain, the tooth had to be cut out, it took 7 shots to deaden it enough for the surgical dentist to cut it out.. I hope I never experience that kinda pain again, found out it could have been worse because the infection could spread to the brain.. maybe that’s been my problem all along.. I’m not a slow learner just a fast forgetter…

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    August 11, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    With all these remedies, many of which I’ve heard and a few I’ve seen some of my country folk try, I’m glad I never had much problem with toothache when young.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    August 11, 2016 at 11:13 am

    I had a few toothaches as a child and I remember mom would apply warm compresses. It seemed to help a little but was in no way a cure. Once it reaches the point of continuous pain I don’t believe much could be done without antibiotics, removing it or getting a filling. I was not blessed with strong teeth and have spent a lot of time in the dentist chair in my adult life.
    As I said in an earlier post my grandfather and g-grandfather were tooth pullers and were as close a thing to a dentist most folks saw back in their days in the hills of N Ga.

  • Reply
    August 11, 2016 at 10:50 am

    Back when I was born and before that, folks had never heard of Calcium. Mama had a stroke 3 months after I was born and it left her paralyzed in her left side. But she didn’t have Calcium enough for me so I only had good teeth for about 6 or 7 years. By the time I got into High School, my jaw teeth were real bad and I’ve even poured gun powder in there trying to stop the pain. I smoked back then and could’ve blown my stupid head off…Ken

  • Reply
    Bob Aufdemberge
    August 11, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Had a pretty bad toothache when I was about ten years old. My grandmother told me to put some whiskey on it, which I did, and it quit hurting, at least for a while, when the treatment would be repeated. She made me spit out the whiskey, which no doubt let the pain come back quicker. Haven’t had a toothache since, that I can remember. Always thought it was because in later years I’ve been faithful about getting my teeth cleaned at the dentist, as well as brushing and even flossing faithfully. Who knows though, maybe it was actually because I always put my left shoe on first!

  • Reply
    August 11, 2016 at 10:45 am

    When I was a kid our dentist’s office was on the 2nd floor. Dad could cure Mom’s toothache by taking her arm and guiding her toward the stairs as they walked through town. It would hurt at night, on weekends or any other times she was away from town but never when she was on that block.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    August 11, 2016 at 10:16 am

    Nothing worse than toothache except maybe earache. We used the oil of cloves remedy and also a piece of aspirin put on the cavity.

    • Reply
      Phil Latimer
      August 27, 2019 at 6:37 pm

      I had a wisdom tooth pulled and the dentist put a slug of cotton soaked in clove oil in the hole to stop the bleeding. It worked. Everything tasted like cloves for a few days but it helped the hole to heal.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 11, 2016 at 9:49 am

    This stuff just gives me the shivers. I had lots of teeth problems as a child and was absolutely terrified of the dentist.
    I have heard it said of older times that a woman could expect to lose a tooth with each child. This was because of the calcium leached from the woman’s body for the baby. Now days pregnant women are always told to take calcium supplements during pregnancy.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    August 11, 2016 at 9:16 am

    The liquor, cinnamon oil and peroxide all may work. The rest a little iffy

  • Reply
    August 11, 2016 at 8:48 am

    One temporary cure comes to mind, and I know it works! Put a whole clove on the affected tooth and hold it there and the pain will ease off from ‘unbearable’ to ‘barely tolerable’..

  • Reply
    Miracle WhiteHorse
    August 11, 2016 at 8:36 am

    Some interesting remedies. I know of two people who used kerosene to get over diphtheria, but that was well over a hundred years ago. The kerosene was not manufactured the way it is today. You wouldn’t want to use modern kerosene.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    August 11, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Mrs. K’s post may explain why so many women in years past had so few teeth and so many children.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 11, 2016 at 8:27 am

    The bark of the Hercules club (also known as prickly ash, toothache tree, tingle tongue) and other species in the same genus will locally numb the gums. I have not personally tried the Hercules club but have tried another species of ‘prickly ash’ I found growing at an old houseplace. It works but my guess is it would only knock the edge off a bad toothache.

  • Reply
    August 11, 2016 at 8:08 am

    Only a toothache would cause you to be desperate enough to try some of these, especially putting cow manure in the cavity. A shocking experience for me once stopped a toothache completely–I still ponder that experience. They say my Grandad pulled his own with pliers, and went on to his job in logging.

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    August 11, 2016 at 6:41 am

    This was really interesting, Tipper. Some weird remedies! I read somewhere, years ago but can’t remember where, that if a woman got a tooth ache or lost a tooth it was likely a sign that she would have a baby.

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