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A Not-So-Familiar Face

September 05, 2004

Every American knows from elementary school days exactly what George Washington looks like: He's always old, ruddy, white-haired, never smiling and just barely fits in a picture frame where someone always forgets to color in the bottom of his shirt. He's the head hero in a national pantheon of founding good guys, but the visage of the surveyor-general-plantation owner-president remains stuck in just a few popular images.

According to the dollar bill, a curly-haired George Washington liked high collars, lacy cravats, ponytails and no plaids. All the videos of Washington apparently were lost. So what's left to study are forensic fragments -- dentures, hair snippets, masks, drawings, portraits, eyeglasses, clothing, statues, busts, diary and mortician entries. That's what researchers will pore over in a two-year high-tech effort just underway to reconstruct the first president's appearance.

Using such evidence plus lasers and sophisticated body-imaging computer programs that visually hypothesize the bone loss of aging, scientists hope by 2006 to construct life-size models of GW at three stages in his 67-year life. Visitors to Washington's Mount Vernon estate, a short carriage ride from his namesake city, will encounter the 19-year-old surveyor/frontiersman, the 45-year-old Revolutionary commander in chief and the 57-year-old president.

One of the likenesses, probably the youngest, may -- you better sit down for this -- put a smile on the Great One. Into the 20th century, portraiture and photographic fashion generally forbade cheesy smiles; Mona Lisa was only trying to comply. Think how strange grinning presidents were before Teddy Roosevelt turned gleaming front teeth into a trademark. Not many amusing Civil War battles to make Abraham Lincoln chuckle? And since his wife, Lucy, allowed only lemonade in the White House, what would Rutherford B. Hayes have to grin about beneath his Zeus-like beard?

Besides lame home heating, itchy colonial clothes and no TiVo, Washington had another reason to be a tight-lipped dourpuss: poor teeth and painful dentures. Washington lost teeth from age 20 on, which explains a favorite food: warm milk over bread. Washington's younger hair, by the way, was actually a striking red, making him very intelligent. His height -- measured north of 6-feet-3 for the coffin -- was imposing, even horizontally. The height advantage was evident in talking to 5-foot-4 James Madison or posing in rowboats crossing wintry rivers.

Even with false teeth, George Washington is the only U.S. president elected by a unanimous electoral college. His record seems safe until the next revolution.

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