Old Timey Dentistry

Monday, October 21, 2013

I must confess that dentists and dentistry don't make me squeamish...maybe it's at least partly due to the fact that I have good teeth and visit my dentist every six months for a cleaning and check-up only to hear (knock on wood) "see you in six months." 

But for those of you who hate the dentist, then this post is perfect for this time of year, the Halloween season. It doesn't help that dentists have (quite unfairly, I believe) gotten a bad rap through several years of pop culture history--Little Shop of Horrors and Marathon Man quickly come to mind. One fairly recent depiction of a dentist in film that is positive is Dr. King Schultz in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Even though the movie takes place after Dr. Schultz has given up dentistry in favor of bounty hunting, I couldn't help but feel that the character's gentlemanly and kind demeanor (when he wasn't busting a cap into well-deserving criminals and cruel slave owners, of course) must have meant he was a gentle tooth doctor with a caring bedside manner years before he met up with Django. Even the advertising logo on the side of his dental wagon proclaims him as "amazing and painless" with "work in a careful, up-to-date manner...prices in the reach of all." I'm just saying, if you needed a tooth pulled in the 1800s, Dr. Schultz would be your man. (I also think a movie prequel or even a network series based on the character would be a smash hit for us fans of the movie...again, just saying.)

With Dr. Schultz in mind, let's take a look (if you dare) at a selection of historical dental images and advertising from the 1800s to the 20th century that just may make you a little more grateful for your own dentist's modern equipment the next time you go (I promise that none of them are really gory; maybe just a bit heebie jeebie-ish.) Just relax and open wide...
This advertisement quite possibly may have provided the design and copy inspiration for Dr. King Schultz's sign. 

It may be hard to believe, but toothbrushes have been available since the 1300s--the Chinese invented and exported them to areas of Europe. In 1770, Englishman William Addis perfected his own bristled toothbrush design after drawing inspiration from a broom during a stint in prison, and started the first toothbrush manufacturing company which still exists today under the name Wisdom. The problem is his creation cost six cents a brush, and was considered a luxury item at the time, so it would be many more years before toothbrushes would be widely adopted. 

Toothbrushes were mass produced in the U.S. starting in 1885. But animal hair used for the bristles of antique toothbrushes held onto bacteria and sometimes fell out, and toothbrushing was often thought of as a hygienic practice only the upper class only did. As a result, brushing one's teeth daily truly didn't catch on in the States until WWII, when soldiers were required to clean their teeth every day.

The next time you need a filling, be grateful for your dentist's high speed drill; the first ones, developed in the 1800s (and before electricity), were powered by a foot pedal! 

The first dental light--a lantern from 1837 that a dentist would use to help them examine a mouth...along with some tools.  

A dental chair and foot pedal drill that belonged to a real-life inspiration for King Schultz, Doc Holliday. 

Dentists usually are bad asses. He did much worse things than practicing dentistry without a license.

WWI soldiers probably with toothache troubles waiting to see the field dentist...needless to say, they don't look very happy!

Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, was discovered in the late 1700s, but not used for dentistry until 1844. It would be almost another 20 years before American dentists began adopting it for use and offering it to their patients. 

Ad from 1911 for another amazing and painless dentist. 

An antique dental mirror found on Etsy, made of bone and featuring a pivotal mirror. It's estimated to have been made between 1850 and 1900 in the UK. 

This dentist had a very innovative idea for the time. 

This lovely art deco-inspired illustration apparently came from a poster advertising a dental school...no doubt they were hoping the opportunity to treat beautiful women would help recruit aspiring dentists. Is it me, or is he looking at her cleavage?

Early dental x-ray machine...it certainly doesn't look comfortable!

Dental mannequins have long been used as a teaching tool at dental schools and are still used today--the Japanese even use robots that will let you know if you're being too rough on them. The vintage mannequin on the right looks like a cross between Alien and Robocop. Creepy!

Dr. Rankin, a female dentist, ready to perform an extraction on a patient in 1909. Lucy Hobbs Taylor was the first American woman to graduate from dental school, in the 1860s. 

Antique wooden tooth that hung outside of a dentist's office. 

Who says dentists like to rip people off? Only 50 cents for each additional tooth removed sounds like a bargain!

Eventually, dental care became more about pro-active prevention. I'm guessing this dental hygiene poster is from the 1950s. No kid, you cannot clean your teeth by blowing plague away with a hair dryer...no more than Dentyne gum will scrub plague away (which was always my teeth brushing cheat strategy as a kid.)

Even back in the day, manufacturers were thinking up ways of getting the tykes to brush. But how much time was spent blowing into the thing vs. using it to brush their teeth?

Glamour sure is an interesting word to use to describe a career in the dental industry. Is it glamorous to look at someone's cavity or tartar covered mouth?

This place was located in the porn district of L.A. in the 1970s. I don't think the Institute of Oral Love had anything to do with dentists, but I wanted to give everyone who made it to the end of this post a little reward!


  1. Yay! I got the reward!!!! I'm like you, always had a dental plan and have always gone twice a year for a cleaning - good genetics and lucky to have a dental plan! Great post, I learned lots. I would love to have one of those old practice heads - they look very cool

  2. Thanks for commenting, My Little Corner. Oh yes, I am lucky as well that I have dental coverage. I think the practice mannequins would be hilarious to put out this time of year for the trick or treaters.

  3. Okay this is the fourth time I've come back to read this--I feel like Jack Nicholson in "Little Shop of Horrors", I can't get enough of this dental stuff :)

    Awesome piece Pam, but I can't get over daily brushing not being "the norm" until after WWII... I wonder if that's the reason we had all those denture-adhesive commercials in the 1970s?? It seemed like every senior citizen wore 'em (including my grandparents).

  4. Ha, ha Doug..at first I was thinking "jack Nicholson was in Little Shop of Horrors"? Then I realized you were talking about the original film.

    I know, it's hard to believe about regular brushing...but that's what all sources I could find said. I did see lots of antique dentures while researching this stuff. Lots more on Pinterest, if you're curious...just do a search for boards named vintage dentistry or old time dentistry.

  5. wow its crazy to see how dentistry was done in the past! we sure have came a long way! lol

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  6. Good lord, I just actively searched for a article about the history of the toothbrush. I'm perfectly fine with that by the way. I researched the Chinese invention toothbrushes in the late 1400s. They were made out of animal hair, such as pig bristles.

  7. There is no way I would have made it through the early dentist way of pulling teeth. It's barbaric, to say the least.

  8. A few hours with Dr. Kern? Didn’t he have any other patients? I’d brush ten times a day if I could get out of A FEW HOURS WITH DR. KERN!


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