Nineteenth Century Dentistry: The Dentures, the Drama

Among the multitude of artifacts found at Riverside are a set of particularly enigmatic dentures, made from a platinum alloy base with the porcelain teeth and gum inset.  What can these false teeth tell us about dental care in the late 19th Century?  After a little digging, we found a few interesting tidbits about the technology, and the drama, behind American dental history:

14.01Before modern dentistry, if you had a toothache then your dentist’s solution would most likely have been to simply (and painfully) pull out the offending tooth.  For those who required more extensive extractions, dentures were an option, but only at exceptionally high prices.  Dentures with a gold or ivory base would have cost about a year’s worth of a domestic servant’s salary in the mid-19th century.

Luckily, in the 1840s Charles Goodyear figured out how to manufacture vulcanite, which is simply flexible rubber – this sent the cost of dentures plummeting to about a fifth of the price they used to be, and sent sales skyrocketing.  Yet, making matters complicated was the fact that the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company required every dentist to acquire a costly license for the use of vulcanite and charged a royalty for every denture made using the material.  Dentists who refused to comply, and there were quite a few, were prosecuted by the Goodyear Company.  Needless to say, the dentists of the country were less than thrilled with the state of things.  One, Samual Chalfant, was so fed up as to track down Goodyear financial director Josiah Bacon, and shoot him dead in 1879!

The patents stopped running in 1881.


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