Scoundrels and Socialites: the Evolution of American Dentistry from 1780 to 1920

The William H. Trueman collection of dental advertisements (Ms. Codex 1760) is the sort of historical medical text that makes me very pleased to be living in the twenty-first century. This album, probably arranged around 1900, features a few dozen reprographics of dental advertisements published in American newspapers like the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Not all of these colonial-era clippings mention grisly procedures or promote toothpastes with names like “dentifrice opiate” but they do call to mind a different era of medicine, one where anesthesia consisted of a glass of hard liquor and many people lost whole sets of teeth to “scorbutic humors” (necrotic gum tissue caused by scurvy). Moreover, the field of medicine was unregulated in this time; anyone could buy space in a newspaper to self-endorse their expertise, regardless of formal training or credentials.

A 1784 notice accuses a Philadelphia dentist of "lies, insolence, and a pitiful attempt at wit."

A 1784 notice accuses a Philadelphia dentist of “lies, insolence, and a pitiful attempt at wit.”

The tenuous reputation of dentistry in pre-revolutionary America is illustrated in a satirical notice published in the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser in 1784, which is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. With heavy sarcasm, the author of this piece provides mock-instructions for a tooth extraction, like, “when you fracture a jaw by attending to these rules, it will not be at all cruel or barbarous, to twist and jerk away with your fingers the unfortunate tooth, hanging by nothing more than splintered bone, gums, and flesh of the lip.” This notification, “addressed to a certain BARBER in Arch-street,” is clearly based on the author’s personal experience.

 

The dentist Newell Sill Jenkins was honored with this album by a group of his American colleagues in 1910.

The dentist Newell Sill Jenkins was honored with this album by a group of his American colleagues in 1910.

The barely-veiled ire in this bulletin could hardly contrast more sharply with the sentiment behind another historical dental document. A dedicatory album presented to the dentist Newell Sill Jenkins “on the occasion of the celebration of his seventieth birthday anniversary in Paris, France” shows how soaringly the profession of dentistry rose over the course of the nineteenth century. Jenkins (1840-1919) was an American dentist who emigrated to Dresden, Germany in 1866 to escape the New England winters he loathed. In Germany, Jenkins experienced enormous social, professional and financial success while treating and befriending high-profile aristocrats across the continent.

The sheer material luxury of the album Jenkins was given in 1910 (part of Ms. Coll. 1202) shows how dentistry had become not just respectable but also glamorous by his time. The hefty volume is bound in gold-embossed leather with inner covers of dark grey watered silk. The first two pages of the tome, which contain its dedication and introduction, are impeccably calligraphed and hand-illuminated in watercolor. Each of the album’s fifty pages contains a portrait photograph of a prominent (and strikingly mustached) American dentist with a short handwritten message of congratulations to Jenkins – in their physical qualities, let alone content, these pages are a far cry from the cramped newspaper ads of the Trueman collection.

"To be beloved by everybody is a rare achievement- so rare that Doctor Jenkins is almost in a class by himself."

“To be beloved by everybody is a rare achievement- so rare that Doctor Jenkins is almost in a class by himself.”

Today, a trip to the dentist doesn’t quite evoke the opulence and excess of Imperial Germany in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War (*sigh*). That golden age of dentistry seems to be over, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Likewise, modern dental medicine hardly resembles its eighteenth century ancestor- and that is most definitely a good thing.

 

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