Getting your facts right is an all important part of being a writer. You will lose your readers quicker than a certain party lost its seats at the election if you drop a clanger like having someone drive a bright red sports car around the centre of Venice. This is why research is so important. We may not use most of the research we cover but we need to pay attention to the small details of the time and place we are writing about so that what we eventually put in is authentic.
Research is also your insurance against talking heads. By this, I mean having characters just standing talking or sitting opposite each other drinking tea. Readers enjoy movement even if your Victorian lady is simply cleaning her teeth – you can actually have her doing something while she is thinking about who might have poisoned the vicar.
Let’s not assume that brushing the teeth then was just the same as it is today. For instance, these days, most of us are able to look after our teeth quite well with the aid of modern dentistry and all the products on the market. However, in Victorian times there was not such a lot of choice. Toothbrushes looked like the ones we use now; although the handles would have been made of bone or wood and the bristles would have been of horse or pony hair.
Soot and charcoal
Toothpaste was referred to then as dentifrice; many people cleaned their teeth with a little salt or soot though. However, your character could go to the pharmacy or chemist and buy commercial dentifrice. These were mostly coloured abrasives which would polish the teeth. In these pastes you would find that it was the powdered chalk and cuttlefish which were the ingredients which would make your pearly whites sparkle; although soot and charcoal was also used in some pastes.
To make your character’s mouth smell medicated, camphor, myrrh or burnt laurel would be added. These would linger in the mouth to make his, or her, breath inoffensive. The camphor and alum may also have had a small antibacterial effect too.
Powdered coral and dragon’s blood were added so that gums would appear pink and healthy. These days we expect toothpaste to be white to reflect the colour of our teeth but in the Victorian era it was supposed to emphasize what good condition their gums were in. All of these things can be woven in to add detail and keep your characters on the move.
Incidentally, when chalk was added to some brands of dentifrice, it was the same material which folks would use to scrub out their sinks and bath tubs with. The cuttlefish in the paste was found washed up on the beaches. Today we use it in budgerigar feed.