In one of scenes for Lady Chandler’s Sister: Book Three of the Twins’ Trilogy, a baby belonging to the story’s heroine is running a slight fever and is fussy. The physician summoned to the child’s aid suggests a coral for the child’s teething needs, but one of my Beta readers wondered if I knew of what I spoke, for her idea of “coral” was marine invertebrates that typically live in compact colonies of many identical individual polyps.
During the Regency era, neither the parents nor many of the attending physicians knew much about the teething experience. When my son was small, every time he cut a tooth, he ended up with an ear infection. I knew something of what worked to ease the pain he experienced, but not so much for parents during the Regency. Many so-called intelligent adults of the period thought teething was one of the causes of infant deaths, claiming that a child’s fragile nervous system caused the the baby to go into convulsions.
Even though, Hippocrates: Volume I: Ancient Medicine (Loeb Classical Library, No. 147) [by Hippocrates (W. H. S. Jones, Translator)] said otherwise, the belief continued to be stated as if it were the truth.
Because of this fear, a legend, of sorts, grew up around the use of a “coral” to relieve the child’s pain and to protect him or her from an early death. Such an attitude carried into the 20th Century. “So deadly has it become, that one-third of the human family die before the twenty deciduous teeth have fully appeared.” [J. D. White, John Hugh McQuillen, George Jacob Ziegler, James William White, Edward Cameron Kirk, Lovick Pierce Anthony, editors. The Dental Cosmos, Volume 36, S. S. White Dental Manufacturing Company, 1894.]
According to Wikipedia, the “coral” legend finds its roots, quite literally, in Greek mythology and the story of Perseus. In the story, Perseus changed Cetus, the sea-monster into a petrified state by employing the head of Medusa. Cetus had assisted in Poseidon’s revenge and the god’s holding of the Princess Andromeda. Cetus intended to swallow Andromeda. Having defeated Medusa, Perseus placed Medusa’s severed head upon the riverbank, so he might wash his hands of the blood. When he reclaimed the head as a prize, he noted that Medusa’s blood had turned the seaweed and the reeds to red coral. Thus, the Greek word for coral is ‘Gorgeia,’ as Medusa was one of the three Gorgons. The Romans, who later took up the tale, believed coral could protect children from harm as well as cure wounds made by snakes and scorpions and diagnose diseases by changing color.
“At the beginning of the 1st millennium, there was significant trade in coral between the Mediterranean and India, where it was highly prized as a substance believed to be endowed with mysterious sacred properties. Pliny the Elder remarks that, before the great demand from India, the Gauls used it for the ornamentation of their weapons and helmets; but by this period, so great was the Eastern demand, that it was very rarely seen even in the regions which produced it. Among the Romans, branches of coral were hung around children’s necks to preserve them from danger from the outside, and the substance had many medicinal virtues attributed to it. The belief in coral’s potency as a charm continued throughout the Middle Ages and early in 20th century Italy it was worn as a protection from the evil eye, and by women as a cure for infertility.” (Precious Coral)
Ancient Egyptians believed coral would east the pain of teething. According to author Kathryn Kane at The Regency Redingote, “Though the ancient Egyptians were unaware of the Greek’s mythological story of the origins of coral, surviving Sumerian tablets more than three thousand years old record their use of coral for teething rings. The Egyptians believed the coral would ease their babies’ pain during teething and they had these coral rings inscribed with the head of Bes, a god which was known to protect children. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that coral would ward off the falling sickness and a number of other infantile ailments and diseases. Plato wrote, ‘Coral is good to be hanged about … ‘ The Greeks hung coral ornaments on their babies’ cradles and in their nurseries while the Romans hung pieces of polished red coral around the necks of their babies to keep away evil influences. This belief in the supernatural power of coral survived into the Middle Ages in Europe, where coral gum sticks were given to teething babies of the upper classes. Parents believed the coral would ward off evil and prevent their babies’ gums from bleeding.
“In Renaissance Italy, a good-luck charm made of coral in the shape of a branch of red coral was worn by many adults. Such protective charms were even more often placed around the necks of many babies to ward off any evil influences. Curiously, it was also believed that coral would protect children from lightening strikes. By the sixteenth century, the use of coral to protect babies had spread across Europe and a necklace of coral beads had become a common christening gift to babies of the more affluent classes. Most children wore these coral beads for years. When the necklace became too small to be worn around the neck, the bead string was usually doubled and worn as a bracelet until the child became an adult. Some children actually chewed on their coral charms or coral beads while they were teething.”
Although the exact timing of can vary from child to child, babies typically begin teething around 6 months of age. Usually the front bottom two teeth (lower central incisors) emerge first, accompanied by the front top two teeth (upper central incisors). Teething can be a painful and difficult process for both babies and parents, as infants may become especially fussy or cranky while their new teeth emerge. Quintessential signs and symptoms of teething include irritability or fussiness, drooling, chewing on firm solid objects, and sore or sensitive gums. Parents also commonly conclude that teething causes diarrhea and fever, but research has shown this to be untrue. Teething does produce signs and symptoms in the gums and mouth but does not generate constitutional or other extended bodily symptoms.
Well-meaning parents and physicians of the 18th and 19th centuries used a variety of cures and remedies, most of which were dangerous to the children involved, including:
lancing the gums
amulets adorned with magical charms: coral sticks, semiprecious stones, a wolf’s tooth (Some were placed around the neck, but others were placed around the waist.)
a lump of sugar wrapped in a cloth
a necklace of coral or 9 strands of scarlet silk
a bag containing wood lice or hairs of a donkey placed about the neck
a necklace of figwort stems or dried bittersweet berries or peony root or sea beans
stems of elder or traveler’s joy were similarly made into teething beads
native plants such as the wild red poppy, as well as the imported opium poppy were used topically
leaves of groundsel infused in baby’s milk
rubbing the brains of a hare on the gums
a folded over cloth saturated with brandy or other spirits
placing leeches on the baby’s gums to “bleed” him or her
Many parents swore by Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, for example, whose advertisements proclaimed, “Depend on it, Mothers, it will give rest to yourselves and relief and health to your babies.” It gave rest but not health: It was, essentially, a mixture of alcohol and morphine.
A 17th C recipe from Sussex used dried roots of henbane, orpine and vervain, all soaked in alcohol and dried to form a necklace to chew on.
A ready-made necklace, available commercially for purchase, used imported orris to ease the pain.
[Day, Nicholas. Morphine? Wolf’s Teeth? Hare Brains? The Endless Quest to Solve Teething. Slate.com]
A look at this list shows the infant mortality rate likely had more to do with the “cures” than the teething process.
At the middle of the 1700s, children of wealthy parents began to seek out a means to keep their children alive. They mixed in a bit of superstition and a bit of the best science of the times and demanded a popular item of the age: an era pacifier adorned with natural materials, such as coral or mother of pearl. The smooth surface of the coral or the mother or pearl provided the baby with something to suck and gnaw on and the miniature bells and rattles distracted the child from his teething pain. These “pacifiers” were typically made of sterling silver or gold. Silversmiths of the era made pacifiers and cups, commissioned by the aristocracy. There were many small parts on the typical coral ring, but no one of the age worried about a choking hazard. The pacifiers were meant to establish a person’s place in Society, the same as would be the commissioned tea service from the very same silversmith. Coral was chosen because of its long-standing belief to ward off ailments, and mother of pearl was used to symbolize purity and innocence. [Colonials Indulge Babies with Gold Pacifiers, Coral Teething Rings]
These lavish rattles and pacifiers announced the wealth of the family, but they also served as a practical way to relieve the child’s suffering, for coral is a relatively soft gemstone, while firm, it is more “forgiving” than the bones and wood and raw carrots those of the lower class depended on. Coral also did not splinter or break. The Victorian era saw the use of the white mother of pearl rattles more so than those made of red coral.
As my story is set at the end of 1820, shortly after George IV came to the throne, I was particular to double check the use of the “pacifiers” shown above, as well as the word “corals,” as I have the physician use it in the novel. I discovered that parents of this last of the Georgian periods preferred coral gum sticks, which is what Doctor Dalhauser suggests to the story’s heroine.