Philadelphia Dentistry of the 1890s: The Papers of Dr. W. A. Capon, D.D.S.

We’ve all been there. The tightened stomach, the gasps of anxious breath, the lingering guilt of lying about our flossing habits—all due to a friendly, routine visit to our local dentist! While modern dentistry has made caring for our teeth a relative breeze, the journey to this enlightened state hasn’t always been so, well, painless.

Enter Dr. William A. Capon, D.D.S. A Canadian by birth and a dentist by trade, his papers [Ms. Coll. 1222] tell a story of what dentistry looked like in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia. Lecture notes from his studies at the Philadelphia Dental College (now Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry) include entries under courses like “Mechan Dentistry,” “Anatomy,” “Operative,” and “Surgery.” What oral surgery looked like in 1890 when he graduated may have been slightly horrifying by 2016 standards.

Student lecture notebook

Student lecture notebook, 1887-1890

A tidbit I find fascinating is a recipe scrawled within the last few pages of his lecture notebook: “’Ideal’ Tooth paste Formula” [Ms. Coll. 1222, box 1, folder 1]:

Glycerin               20 oz

Soda carb             240 grs

Acid Stearic          240 grs

Sodii Boras           21 oz

Ideal Tooth paste Formula

“Ideal Tooth paste Formula,” written by Dr. W. A. Capon in his student notebook

Powd Soap           10 oz

Mix by heat and add.

Creta Precip         100 oz

Pulv Sacch           20 oz

Honey Clarified   32 oz


Menthol               50 grs

Oil Wintergreen 400 m

Oil Cloves            200 m

Oil Peppermint   150 m

Alcohol Q.S.        2 oz


Carmine              20 gr

Aqua Ammonia  200 m

Between the glycerin and stearic acid, it seems more like a candle-making recipe than a preventative measure for cavities.

Dr. Capon’s workbooks also reveal an interesting historical perspective of how dentistry has evolved over the past 100+ years with hundreds of pages of pre-X-ray hand colored diagrams telling the story of each of his patients’ dental work. Notes on work done, along with dates for each patient, inform the reader of what types of problems plagued Philadelphia’s residents of the 1890s [Ms. Coll. 1222, box 1, folders 2 & 3].

Dental diagram

Dental diagram, circa 1895

Dental diagram

Dental diagram, circa 1895











The careful rendering of each tooth’s stages of decay and reconstruction give both students of dentistry and the general public a fascinating view of the care our great-great grandparents may have received. For my part, I’m thankful for the work of Dr. Capon and his contemporaries—we wouldn’t have the care we have today without their dedicated research and vision for the infant 20th century at its commencement.

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