The best way to make certain you did not have teeth problems in 1879 was to be born a hundred years later. In 1879 dentists had no need for a license to practice. Anyone who had pliers, a chair with arm straps to hold the patient down, and a wooden mallet for use when necessary, could practice dentistry.
Few people had teeth pulled back then. You either kept your teeth with all your cavities, or you had the tooth removed when it got so bad you were willing to risk death and infection.
There were pain killers, after a fashion. Corncob ashes mixed with fresh lard kept the air from reaching the nerve. Green tree-moss mixed with candle wax was another remedy. Moldy bread kneaded into a dough ball was one of the best. The most popular pain deadener was a dab of snuff or a wad of chewing tobacco.
Decay? No one had made a tool that would remove the decay… so it stayed put until you went out of your mind. Here’s a lesson. The Native Americans had little tooth decay. Why? I don’t know. With a lot of protein in their diet, they were better off than the White man. That is until the Whites started to spread sweets and sweeteners.
Do you brush your teeth? The Indians did. They chewed sticks and used pieces of birch bark to clean their choppers.
The Indians also had cavities. What they did for the cavity was heat a large wood sliver to smoking, then jam it into the cavity. It either killed the bacteria… or killed the nerve endings.
The discovery of the wooden mallet as an important dental tool was fortuitous. The inventor (Name unknown) told the story, and his tale is an interesting discovery for which his contemporaries shall be forever grateful.
“A burly trapper came into my office. He demanded that I pull one of his teeth. I sat him on a low stool, I grasped the tooth with a pair of pliers, and twisted. Immediately, my patient closed his teeth on my thumb. I was in excruciating pain and I grabbed for the first thing at hand. It was a wooden mallet. I banged the patient on the head, rendering him unconscious. After wrapping my injured hand in a towel, I finished removing the tooth. The patient was extremely pleased when he awoke. Though he also complained, ‘I do not understand why I have such a headache.’ “
With the coming of Novocain and laughing gas that is no longer necessary. Hardy men like the trapper in the story, when they lost a tooth, simply used an animal tooth and wired it into place. Later, as dentistry became streamlined, the dentist had teeth made for their patents of ivory, whale-bone, wood, and other stuff.
Grave robbers and muggers had a tidy little side-line going. They sold the teeth the owners no longer needed… or took them while the victim was unconscious. Many a stranger ended up shanghaied, on a three-year whaling voyage, with no money and no teeth.
Some dentists protected any new idea or procedure with a determination. When, in 1868, Josiah Bacon perfected the process of making a rubber mold of teeth, using the mold to make copies of a fine cementitious material, he tried to franchise the process. Other dentist refused to pay him a royalty for his invention so he hired strong-armed thugs to teach them a lesson. One such independent dentist was found shot to death in his San Francisco hotel in April of 1879.
A person in pain could always rely on witchcraft. One remedy was to take a relative’s letter and burn it over a lamp which has been lit for thirty minutes. Then put the ashes in the aching tooth. Voila, no pain. Or, trim your nails on Friday and your tooth trouble will vanish in seven days. Or, get a live red ant and soak the ant in whiskey. Drop it into the cavity and it will sting the nerve to death. Really desperate people rubbed cat manure on a rag. Wrapping the rag around the jaw where it hurt the most eased the pain. You may laugh at these home remedies but, in this year of the twenty-first century’s advanced ideas, there is ample evidence of the power of suggestion.
Next Week: All About Lake County’s Cemeteries
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