Toothy Propositions

Sorry for the title, that's what sitting in a dentist chair does. As I sat in one for a check-up last week, I wondered about dentistry in the mid-1800s.

Julia Wilbur reported visiting the dentist in Rochester a few times. While the twice-year check-up was still in the distant future, the dentistry profession had come a long way beyond the "barber-cum-dentist" tales we have heard of during the 1800s.

A few entries from her diary (recognizing that people, then as now, probably only record dental experiences when something is wrong):

March 7, 1860

Went to Dr. Morgan’s to have the remains of a tooth taken out, but I was not able to have it done. I did not think once I should come to this.

June 2, 1862

Went to Dentist’s. Had part of tooth taken out, bore it finely

November 18, 1864

Last night had no sleep at all. My tooth & face ached terribly, & nothing that I tried did any good. Have not had such a time before in several years.

EveryDay Habits

Julia probably had a toothbrush; by the late 1850s, they were mass-produced in the U.S., in different sizes and made of natural bristles, but were also available well before then. The Museum of Everyday Life, in describing a toothbrush produced in England in the 1840s, notes that increased teeth-brushing and dental care coincides with the consumption of more sugar in the diet. Powders made of soap, charcoal, and chalk served as toothpaste. I saw one ad for cocaine powder to alleviate tooth aches.

Several schools of dentistry operated, beginning with the College of Dental Surgery in Baltimore in the 1840s. In 1860 approximately 5,000 dentists nationwide practiced. Of course, they did not have as much advanced training as today, but neither did medical doctors or just about any other profession.

Sure enough, the 1861 Rochester City Directory (digitized by the Local History division of the Rochester Public Library) lists Dr. Morgan:

Meanwhile, the Washington City Directories also listed many dentists. Among them was H. Nicholas Wadsworth at 366 C Street North. Wadsworth applied for the patent to mass-produce the toothbrushes mentioned above. So, he may have either walked over to the Patent Office himself or employed the services of one of the many patent agents who worked in the neighborhood. Maybe his proximity to the Patent Office even encouraged his inventiveness, beyond the usual services he offered:

  The cost at dentist H.N. Wadsworth's office on C Street, image from his Findagrave entry.

The cost at dentist H.N. Wadsworth's office on C Street, image from his Findagrave entry.

Dentistry for Civil War Soldiers

One prerequisite for entry into military service, according to many accounts: at least 6 "opposing teeth," in order to be able to bite off the end of powder cartridges.

The Confederate Army offered better dental services than the Union--by which I mean, they offered some dentistry. The Union Army rejected the idea of a dental program, despite efforts by the then fairly new American Dental Association and individual dentists. Union surgeons extracted rotten teeth when soldiers could bear the pain no longer.

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