Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dentists in Columbia California

Movies and novel covers depicting Hollywood-handsome and beautiful western heroes and heroines often leave us with the impression that everyone in past centuries had beautiful, strong teeth. Such was not the case. No, they didn’t eat as much candy and junk food back in the 1850’s, the time period in which my novella, Too Old for Christmas, is set. But disease, poor diet, periods of inadequate food no doubt took their toll on the dental health of many people in the nineteenth century.

from dentist display, Columbia State Park, CA
As much as going to the dentist is not considered the most pleasant of experiences today, it was a particularly unpleasant prospect in the days before modern pain-killers and equipment. In early history, before dentistry became a recognized profession, when tooth pain became so severe that a person would rather take their chances on living through an extraction than continue enduring the pain, the obvious people to visit were either the local blacksmith or thebarber since they were the ones most likely to have the tools and/or the right chair to get the tooth out. To advertise their services as ‘tooth-pullers’, many barber-surgeons hung rows of rotten teeth outside their shops.

From  Dentistry in Early 19th Century New England” on the Old Sturbridge Village website: “Teeth have always been of great concern to human beings.  Without them, clear speech is impossible.  The toothless cannot properly chew their food, a problem often leading to indigestion or malnourishment.  Depending on their physical state, teeth can be objects of either beauty or revulsion.  Without sound teeth, an 18th- or 19th century soldier could not bite open the cartridge of his musket.  Few kinds of pain are as intense or distracting as that of a toothache.  Yet teeth and their supporting gums are highly susceptible to disease and decay.   The problems of preventing the loss of teeth, replacing those that are lost, keeping the breath sweet, and alleviating mouth pain are older than civilization itself.
From Columbia Gazette, 1856
Another evidence that many nineteenth century people suffered from poor dental health was the presence of dentists, even in the small gold rush towns of California. 

Based on information derived from the local newspapers of the day, such as the Columbia Gazette in Columbia, a gold mining town of about 5,000 residents, there was a dentist named Dr. J. J. Massey in business in 1854. He moved into the two story frame hotel that replaced the original American Hotel which burned down in July, 1854. In 1855, another dentist, M. W. Parsons, shares an office space with a medical doctor, Dr. McChesney. In 1856, dentist S. H. Fickett ran an advertisement in the Columbia Gazette.

Turn keys used for tooth extraction
Dentistry, as we understand it today, did not emerge as a licensed profession until the end of the 19th century. However, professional dental care became increasingly available, even if it was inconvenient or painful. Doctor-dentists practiced in cities and towns, plus there were a number of itinerant dentists.  

1850's dental tools, Columbia State Park, California collection
By the early 19th century dentists were no longer uncommon, and they routinely performed many of the same oral procedures as their professional descendants do today, from cleaning to extraction, and the fitting of dentures.  They also sold tooth brushes and dentifrices. However, they lacked the antiseptics and antibiotics available today, and their procedures risked infection far more than today. 
1860's Ivory handle dental tools, Columbia State Park, California collection
The most notable aspect of dental procedures in the past was the presence of pain. There was no local anesthetic available. A great deal of pain was involved in all early 19th century dental procedures. Before cocaine, the precursor to Novocain, was developed, dentists had nothing to give patients to help with pain until later in the century.

From : “Cocaine and Dentistry” by Nicholas Calcaterra, DDS:
“In 1860, a young German chemist named Albert Niemann isolated cocaine from the leaves of the South American coca bush.  He called the new compound “Cocain.” After his discovery, chemists in Europe and the U.S. began to experiment with it. Sigmund Freud was an early proponent of its medicinal uses and encouraged a physician colleague Dr. Karl Koller to experiment with its analgesic properties.

 Koller experimented with cocaine and then demonstrated the local anesthetics effects at an Ophthalmic meeting in 1884.  News spread quickly to the United States and only a couple of weeks of Koller’s demonstration, it was used in dentistry. William Haldsted MD injected cocaine into the lower jaw of a patient and then extracted a tooth with no pain or sensation felt by the patient. Thus marked the beginning of the use of local anesthetics in dentistry.

Until the late 1880’s when cocaine was widely adopted to deal with tooth pain and to help make dental procedures less grueling, there was not much available to help people face a visit to the dentist. In addition to herbal preparations used for general pain, about the only “anesthetic” available was alcohol.
Dentist display in Columbia State Park, California
That was the situation in the 1850’s for my hero, Sean Flood, a poor Irishman who escaped the potato famine in his homeland by immigrating to the United States, and eventually came to California after gold was discovered. Unlike the hunky Hollywood heroes with their perfect teeth, the deprivations in Sean’s past took its toll on his teeth. Too Old for Christmas starts with Sean facing another visit to the local dentist, Doc Massey, and he stops by the Columbia Mercantile to pick up, among other things, some whiskey to help him face the ordeal ahead of him. There he meets Ona McNair who encourages him to use willow bark tea, a source of acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, to help with the pain. (Anyone today who has faced a root canal and relied on aspirin to help with the pain knows the limitations of that pain-killer.)

Here is the book description for Too Old for Christmas:

Irishman Sean Flood survived the potato famine, crossing the Atlantic, the
Mexican-American War, and wandering the Western wilderness with his mules and freight wagon. But, due to poor diet and deprivation, his teeth did not fare well. It’s November of 1854 in Columbia, California, Queen of the Southern Mines, a city Sean is helping to rebuild after the disastrous fire the previous summer. Intense stabbing tooth pain drives him to see Doc Massey, the local dentist. He first stops by the mercantile to pick up a bottle of whiskey—for medicinal purposes—and food­­­­ he’ll be able to eat when it’s all over. If only the beautiful but aggravating woman ahead of him who keeps her face half hidden and insists she won’t accept charity would finish up with her purchase so he can get his supplies, his tooth pulled and return home to his mules and half-built cabin….

That night, Sean meets the woman’s two sons, Jesse and Benjy McNair, and learns her secret. He decides with only three teeth left in his head, he needs widow Ona McNair’s charity—and he’s willing to pay for it. Sean won’t accept nine year-old Jesse’s declaration his family’s poverty means the boy is too old for Christmas that year. Sean is a full-grown man and he’s not too old for Christmas. He not only plans to come bearing gifts to Christmas Eve dinner with the McNairs, but he knows exactly what gift he wants for himself.   
*Sweet Romance

Too Old for Christmas is now available on pre-order at Amazon. You may purchase it by clicking HERE. It will be available on Nook soon.

 About the Author:

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. 

The author currently lives with her husband in California near the “Gateway to Yosemite.” She is a member of Women Writing the West, American Night Writers Association, and Modesto Writers Meet Up. She currently lives with her husband in California near the “Gateway to Yosemite.” She enjoys any kind of history including family history. When she is not piecing together novel plots, she pieces together quilt blocks.

 Zina Abbott Links:

Website  |  Blog  |  Facebook  |  Pinterest  |  Goodreads  |  Twitter

Zina Abbott Amazon Author Page 

Too Old in Columbia Series on Facebook

Too Old in Columbia Series on Pinterest


Kristy McCaffrey said...

What great info about dentistry. Thanks for sharing and I've purchased your new story. Look forward to reading it!

Melissa Morr said...

Great info!

Agnes Alexander said...

Such an interesting blog. I had often wondered why all the heroes had perfect teeth. Now I know they didn't. I can certainly understand why they didn't go to the dentist until they had to. I hate going to the dentist and I have an appointment on Thursday for a cleaning. I don't even like that. I'm going to order your book as soon as I charge up my Kindle. It looks like a good one.

Ginger Jones Simpson said...

Glad I didn't have to visit the dentist during the "Cocain" period or I'd be a drug addict. I have a phobia about Dentists that has stemmed to my childhood so I always have to pay more for counscious sedation. Back in the old west, I doubt I'd have teeth by now. *lol* Interesting but scary topic for me. *lol*

Zina Abbott said...

Thank you, ladies, for your comments. I agree I am so glad that dentistry has improved over time. I remember going as a child and receiving a Novocain shot that did not quite numb my tooth. The drill was an old belt-driven affair. Instinctively, I reached up to push it away when the drill hit a nerve. He jerked the drill away and hollered at me, telling me how dangerous it was to touch the arm of the drill because the moving chains could cut my fingers off. And, that was in the days where dental treatment had greatly improved since the 1850s, the time of this story.