Early 20th Century Dentistry: More Modern Than You Think

Early 20th century dentistry

Early 20th Century Dentistry: More Modern Than You Think

Melina Druga
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An early 20th century dentist's office
An early 20th century dentist’s office

Dreading that next trip to the dentist?  You’re not alone.

Patients a century ago, equally dreaded the visit, but thankfully, dentistry had modernized considerably by the early 20th century.  At least, you could reasonably expect pain medication and a speedy drill.  Let’s take a look at early 20th century dentistry.

Dental schools got their start in the mid-19th century.  Before this, dentists had “day jobs” and performed rudimentary dentistry on the side.

French surgeon Pierre Fauchard is considered the father of modern dentistry.  He developed many treatments we take for granted, including braces and fillings, a century before the first dental schools.

Dental assisting became a profession in the 1880s.  In those days, assistants were called Ladies in Attendance.  Their jobs included not only assisting their employers but greeting patients and ordering supplies.

Dental hygienists were first employed in the late 1910s.

Dental Instruments and Pain Relief

A treadle-powered dentist drill in operation
A treadle-powered dentist drill in operation

The 1870s witnessed the invention of the electric dental drills as well as the hydraulic dental chair.  Previously, drills were powered by hand, and drilling was a painful and time-consuming process.  There were attempts at drills powered by clockwork or pedals, but they, too, were slow as well as noisy.

Dental X-rays were first used in 1896, only a year after the X-ray’s invention, allowing dentists more accurate diagnoses.

Forceps began being used for dental extractions by the early 20th century.  They replaced the dental key instrument that often broke teeth or injured the mouth.

The drug that is marketed as Novocain was invented in 1905.  A local anesthetic, the drug became popular with dentists as a replacement for another common dental drug – cocaine.  Physicians were aware of the addictive nature of cocaine by the early 20th century, but it was readily available.

Cocaine also was used as a local anesthetic and allowed teeth to be extracted without pain for the first time.

Toothbrushes and Toothpaste

A Victorian woman brushing her teeth
A Victorian woman brushing her teeth

Toothpaste was introduced in the 1870s.  Fauchard had correctly identified sugar as a cause of tooth decay, and by this time there was greater understanding that taking care of one’s teeth was beneficial.  Toothpaste takes its name from the first products, which were pastes sold in tins, jars and boxes.

Toothpaste sold in a tube, called dentifrice, appeared a decade later and was very common by the early 20th century.

Fluoride toothpastes began being sold in 1914, and all toothpaste contained soap until mid-century.

The earliest toothbrushes were a bone handle with pig- or other animal-hair bristles.  Handles eventually became made of synthetic materials.

Toothpaste and toothbrushes were commonly sold in catalogues, such as Montgomery Ward.

Dental floss went on the market in the late 19th century.

As you can see, a trip to the dentist in the Edwardian era would be surprisingly familiar.

What do you consider the greatest advance in dentistry?  Leave a comment below.

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Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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