“You can judge a society by how their dentists treat their patients”—isn’t that how that old saying goes?
Maybe not, but perhaps it should.
The science of dentistry has come a long way in the past 100 years and a really long way since ancient times. To get a good idea of how far we’ve come, let’s start with early evidence of how tooth care used to be performed.
Throughout time, those caring for teeth have used beeswax as dental fillings, rabbit heads and urine as toothpaste, and teeth from animals and human corpses for dentures (as well as wire, springs, or thread to try to hold the dentures in place). It will probably come as no surprise to find that in the 18th century BC, pulling teeth was used as a form of punishment. Even when it wasn’t specifically being used as punishment, removing teeth was often done with instruments such as a chisel and a mallet. These were later replaced with forceps, which probably didn’t feel all that much better to the person having the tooth removed.
By 1900, things were a bit more civilized….well, kind of. The first American school of dentistry had been up and running for 60 years by this time, the American Society of Dental Surgeons was created, and dentistry was beginning to be regulated.
However, despite these improvements, “street dentists” were making a pretty good living. It is estimated that there were around 5,000 street dentists operating in New York City alone. These dentists operated without training, licensing, regulation, or regards for safety or sanitation, which often resulted in infection, abscess, and even in the death of the patient.
Around 1905, Novocain started to be used to ease some of the pain of dental procedures. Even with today’s advances, we all know that dentistry is not entirely painless, but back then people were so thrilled with the idea of Novocain that it was touted as “painless dentistry.”
Interestingly, World War One helped to bring about interest in dental hygiene. Many young men were deemed unfit for the military because of their poor dental health. Those that did make it into the military were given toothbrushes as part of their supplies, and when the war was over they shared their new oral hygiene habits with their families.
After the war many countries started promoting good dental hygiene in children—whether this was out of concern for everyone’s welfare or an attempt to have the next generation ready for war no one can say for sure.
As people began to realize that taking care of their teeth was a good idea, toothbrush use began to increase. For centuries toothbrushes had been made with materials such as animal bone for the handle and boar bristles for the brush (which doesn’t really sound like something you would want to put in your mouth, but it was better than nothing!). In the 1900s, companies started to make toothbrushes using celluloid handles and nylon fibers for the bristle part. As you can tell just by walking down the aisle at your grocery store, there is now a wide variety of toothbrushes to choose from—plain toothbrushes with no frills, electric toothbrushes, chewable toothbrushes, even toothbrushes that play music!
Grocery store shelves are also full of a wide variety of toothpastes, each claiming to do different things, and available in all kinds of different flavors. Consumers today should be grateful—today toothpaste not only tastes a lot better than it used to and is much more effective, but it is easier to use. Toothpowder used to be the only option available—it was not premixed and ready to apply to the toothbrush, and it did not come in an easy-to-dispense tube.
Thankfully for all of us, dentistry and the ability to care for teeth have come a long, long way, even in the past 100 years. Taking care of your teeth has never been easier!