George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Greenwood, 16 February 1791

To John Greenwood

Philadelphia, February 16, 1791.


Your letter of the 6th and the box which accompanied it came safe to hand.1 The contents of the latter were perfectly agreeable to me, and will, I am persuaded, answer the end proposed very well.

Enclosed I send you Twenty dollars in payment for them and the repairs of the old ones, and, etc.

P.S. That I may be certain that this letter and its contents has got safe to hand, be so good as to say so in a line to G.W.2

Fitzpatrick, Writings, description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799. 39 vols. Washington, D.C., 1931–44. description ends 31:216–17.

John Greenwood, a New York surgeon-dentist, manufactured and repaired dentures for GW. According to his notice in the New-York Daily Advertiser of 14 Dec. 1787, Greenwood practiced his trade at 199 Water Street, opposite the Coffee House. He advertised for “Live teeth . . . for which a Guinea each will be given,” and added that “Persons at any distance may be supplied with artificial teeth by sending an impression, taken in Wax, of the vacant place where wanted.” Greenwood also noted that he “draws teeth and stumps and attends abroad on sending directions” (Gottesman, Arts and Crafts in New York, description begins Rita Susswein Gottesman. The Arts and Crafts in New York: Advertisements and News Items from New York City Newspapers. 3 vols. New York, 1938-65. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 69, 81–82. description ends 1777–99, 307). In 1790 Greenwood was conducting business at 56 William Street in New York (New York City Directory, description begins The New-York Directory, and Register, for the Year 1790. New York, 1790. description ends 1790, 45).

GW apparently first employed Greenwood to make and repair his false teeth while the federal government was located in New York City. GW plainly was pleased with Greenwood’s services and continued to patronize him after the federal capital was moved to Philadelphia and even after he retired from the presidency. This long-distance relationship seems to have made it difficult for Greenwood to fit GW’s dentures properly. Greenwood apparently did his best but wrote to GW in his letter of 10 Sept. 1791, noting that “it is dificult to do these things Whithout being on the spot” and indicating an intention to visit Philadelphia in November in order to fit GW’s dentures in person (DLC:GW). Despite Greenwood’s careful attention to GW’s case, the president’s dentures were apparently ill-fitting and uncomfortable. GW complained in his letter to Greenwood of 20 and 25 Jan. 1797 that his dentures forced his lips outward, making his mouth bulge (ALS [photocopy], DLC:GW; ALS, NHi: Washington Papers). To make them more comfortable, GW occasionally filed (or had someone else file) the dentures down and made other alterations to the appliances, which sometimes damaged them (see GW to Greenwood, 7 Dec. 1798, and notes).

The false teeth Greenwood crafted for GW were made with ivory and human teeth. Greenwood’s letter of 28 Dec. 1798 contains strict instructions about the proper care and maintenance of these materials. Despite the difficulties and discomforts he experienced, GW continued to employ Greenwood for the remainder of his life. When Greenwood advised him at the end of 1798 that he was considering retiring from his practice and moving to Connecticut, GW replied on 6 Jan. 1799 that “If you should remove to Connecticut, I should be glad to be advised of it; and to what place; as I shall always prefer your Services to that on any other, in the line of your present profession” (see GW to Greenwood, 28 Dec. 1798, and notes). In his reply dated 11 Jan. 1799, Greenwood promised to inform GW should he retire, “as I meain to perform for you, in my present Professional line, when I have done with every other person” (IEN-D).

1Greenwood’s letter of 6 Feb. 1791 has not been found. The box to which GW refers apparently contained a set of false teeth GW probably had ordered from Greenwood before leaving New York City in the summer of 1790.

2This letter apparently accompanied a package containing false teeth being sent to Greenwood for repair. No letter from Greenwood to GW indicating the safe arrival of this package has been found. In a now missing letter to Greenwood of 4 Sept. 1791 GW expressed concern that a package sent to the dentist had miscarried, but this may refer to another parcel, perhaps sent to Greenwood after GW’s return to Philadelphia in July (see Greenwood to GW, 10 Sept. 1791).

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