Back when old time street dentistry ruled the land
Back When Old Time Street Dentistry Ruled the Land
It’s the early 19th
century, and you’re a farmer working the land in Oklahoma, America’s great bread
bowl. You live without most of the modern amenities we take for granted today. There’s no running
water, no indoor plumbing, and you get around either by walking or riding a horse.
So what do you do when you get a bad toothache? There isn’t a dentist’s office around the corner. You
can’t even buy a toothbrush at the local store (commercial toothbrushes weren’t sold until 1938).
Your tooth hurts more and more
every day, and your left with very
few options. You can let it get
worse, or you can get it extracted.
But who performs your tooth
extraction? What we know of as
modern dentistry—going to the
dentist’s office for cleanings and
fillings—didn’t exist until the turn of
century. The task of
removing teeth was left to other
professionals: barbers and
The man who cuts your hair seemed like a good enough candidate for dentistry back then. After all, your
teeth are part of your head, and a barber works with heads every day. Hair grows out of your head,
teeth grow out of your head, makes sense, right?
Another option besides the barber would be to go to the same person who helps fit your horse with
shoes—a blacksmith. He already has the tools for extraction, and if you only need a filling, he can fill
your cavities with molten metal, too!
A short history of dentistry
Dentistry goes back almost as far as toothaches. The first filling that we know of was performed over
6,500 years ago in Slovenia, using beeswax. The ancient Romans even had braces—they used
bridgework and wire to close gaps.
The romans invented an early version of toothpaste (made from crushed eggshells), and the first
toothbrush with bristles came out of China in 1498.
For thousands of years, there was little to no understanding of what caused dental problems: up until
century the main culprit of tooth decay was thought to be a “tooth worm.”
The key to modern dentistry: regulation
No matter how much the science of dentistry advanced, amateur street dentistry (practiced by barbers
and blacksmiths) didn’t go away until the government decided to regulate the industry. The American
Dental Association (ADA) was formed in the late 1800s, and they lobbied congress to pass laws requiring
a license in order to perform dentistry.
Now the barber and the blacksmith needed a license to pull teeth, and they had to go to dental school in
order to get that license. Regulation was an important step in ensuring that all dental procedures were
performed by dental professionals, which is something we take for granted today.
So the next time you get a sore tooth, be grateful you don’t have to rely on your hairstylist to take care
of it. And when you need a filling, remember to thank those brave dental pioneers in ancient times who
first braved a dentist’s drill.
But above all, be grateful the toothbrush was invented in the first place.