First of all, there were no dentists perse. There were surgeon dentists since the people who practiced did both. (Most were men but in 1797 the Columbian Centinel lists an ad from Mrs. Dodge, newly arrived in Boston from New York and claiming expertise in “Art Dental”.) Most of these so-called dentists were itinerants (like my traveling weaver Will Rees.) Not only service people like Rees and the dentists traveled but also ministers, magistrates and other professions. The routes began to settle into regular circuits by about 1800.
But I digress.
Many of these surgeon-dentists were quacks, promising all manner of cures. Some were reputable, however, promoting dentrifice (that’s toothpaste to us) and genuinely possessing some kind of medical training.
So what did these early dentists do?
Well, without novacaine and the drills we take for granted, dentistry was a painful affair. Some reputable surgeon dentists ‘plumbed’ the teeth, scraping out the decay and filling the tooth with gold or lead. (I can only imagine how awful this must have been.) Most decayed teeth were simply extracted with a tool that resembles a corkscrew with a hook on one end. Teeth, by the way, were not pulled but drawn. Interestingly, in light of current knowledge on how dental health affects the entire body, doctors of that time already predicted one’s health would improve with good teeth. No less a personage than Dr. Rush, a Philadelphia doctor who gained fame during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793, predicted cures for several diseases once a rotten tooth was pulled. It was a case of overreach, however, since not only rheumatism would be relieved but also such ailments as epilepsy.
What about George Washington’s wooden teeth? First of all they weren’t wooden. They were ivory (carved at various times from elephant and hippo teeth,) Washington’s first set were carved of ivory with human teeth inserted and with a hole for his one remaining molar. Sounds awkward and painful both.
And while we are on teeth, Napoleon’s Josephine learned to smile with one hand shielding her mouth since several of her front teeth were decayed. As a child she had a great fondness for sugar cane.