Hygiene, Fillings, and Extractions-Then and Now

The dental office at the turn of the twentieth century now seems completely unfamiliar to us. The typical dentist of our time operates out of stand alone building or office complex with a vast array of high-tech equipment to assist with hygiene and dental needs. The dentist’s office of the past, however, was quite different.

Dentists in the 19th and early 20th century typically operated out of the front room or parlor of their home. They also might have had a two room office (waiting room and examination room) on their property that was detached from the house. Here are some other facts and practices which will make you love your modern day dentist.

Slow speed drills-

In their early form were quite noisy and very, very slow. Only reaching speeds of up to 15 rpm. There also was no way to eliminate the dust made by the slow turning, foot pedal operated drill. Today’s high speed drills vary from 400,000 to 800,000 rpm.

Stand up dentistry

Prior to 1958 dentists  practiced stand up dentistry. The patient would sit upright along with the dentist standing during dental procedures. But just a mere 4 decades ago, that all changed
with the introduction of the first reclining contour dental chair.


Modern day irrigation is much more pleasant then “Ok Mrs. Johnson, now lean over and spit”, for all parties involved. The cuspidor’s common use has greatly declined over the years. In the late 19th century United States spittoons became a very common feature in pubs, saloons, hotels, stores, banks, street corners, and railway carriages. As well as any other location where people (especially adult men) gathered. Following the 1918 flu epidemic, both hygiene and etiquette advocates began to disparage public use of the spittoon. Chewing gum replaced tobacco as the favorite chew of the younger generation.

Boil and reuse of dental instruments for infection control

Boiling as a sterilization method was introduced in 1881. Items sterilized included linens, dressings, and instruments. Soon after Ernst Von Bergman, a German physician, first used the steam sterilizer, which has advanced in technology, but is still in use to this day.

Amalgam filling

Amalgam is a filling material still in use today. The dentist squeezes the material into their hand, then applies it to the tooth using a finger.

There were no plastic fillings.

No radiation control on x rays

Discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Roentgen a professor at Wuerzberg University in Germany. With the discovery and widespread research into x-rays in the late 1800’s, it was also discovered that there was serious dangers. Hair loss, burns, and other issues started to be discovered shortly after the discovery of x-rays themselves.

Hammer and chisel tooth extractions   ummmm, enough said!

Only Novocaine to manage pain

Novocaine was first produced in 1905 by a German chemist, Alford Einhorn. Its primary purpose was for pain management in medical procedures.

Blindfolded for added comfort

This procedure lost popularity quickly , It’s lack of actual usefulness was less than helpful.

No insurance

Dental work and oral hygiene programs were always on a pay-for-service basis until 1954 when California introduced the first actual dental insurance plans.

Dentistry has come a long way, advancements in dental equipment to make it easier, faster, and more comfortable.