Toothache prompts dental history search

Reporter in Residence
Monroe Mouse

Owww! My little mouse tooth was really hurting. I suffered with a toothache for two days before I got see my favorite dentist (her dental practice is specifically for small rodents) and everything was put right with a drill, a fill and unfortunately, a bill. At least my teeth aren’t as big as a mastodon’s!

This got me wondering about dentistry in Monroe County during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Who was the first dentist in Monroe County? How did he or she learn about fixing teeth? What were the old-time dental procedures and how are they different from today?

First I looked online for information about the history of dentistry to get the big picture, and located some secondary sources (trusted sites, of course), including the American Dental Association and the National Institute of Health. I found out that throughout history humans in various cultures and geographic areas were interested in teeth and the maladies that befell them.

Did you know that a Sumerian tablet, 5000 BCE, listed “tooth worms” as the cause of dental decay? And that an interesting beginning to the practice of dentistry came from 13th century France, where barbers performed medical procedures such as bloodletting and tooth extraction that morphed into dentistry? (The familiar red-and-white barber pole is because of the blood!) And in American Revolutionary War times, Paul Revere advertised his work as a dentist in addition to being a silversmith.

Before the 20th century, mentoring with established dental surgeons was the first step to becoming a dentist on ones’ own. The world’s first dental school — the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery — and the D.D.S. degree were established in 1840. More colleges quickly came into existence, my favorite being the Chicago Tooth Saving College, chartered in 1892 (sorry, it no longer exists).

Now it was time to answer my local questions, which took a lot of night scampering. The City Directories in the Mansion only go back to 1892, so I returned to the internet, entering “Historical dentists Monroe County PA.” I crossed my paws and whispered “Go, Google”!

I found a book on the history of Wayne, Pike, and Monroe counties published in 1886. The text of the book is online and all “dentist” words were highlighted! I soon found Dr. Jackson Lantz, who established a dental practice at 717 Main St., Stroudsburg, in 1852. He may have been the first! Three Stroudsburg dentists were listed in the 1892 directory: Edward Brown, John Metzgar, and Nelson L. Peck, Main Street. W.H. Douglas appeared under East Stroudsburg listings, with an office on Crystal Street opposite “the Depot.”

To find out what procedures were used, some treasures in the Mansion became my helpers. I found eight “day books” belonging to Dr. Peck. His books could reveal what an average dentist’s days were like!
After “a good common school education,” Dr. Peck learned dentistry under Dr. Lantz, and took some courses at a new Philadelphia dental college. In 1870, Dr. Peck, age 23, began his own practice at 618 Main St. and continued until 1920.

Dr. Peck’s day books took careful study. Night after night, I climbed onto the latch, opened the door of the huge cupboard in the Erdman room, and gingerly pulled out the books. The graceful cursive letters put down in sepia ink chronicled each day’s work, listing patients, treatments, and how much was charged. Familiar Monroe County names such as Staples, Wyckoff, Brodhead, Rush and Stokes are there. In the first book (1870-1876) I opened, an entry that caught my eyes was:

April 12 Mifs Eliza Stroud Gold filling R U
[right upper] molar Pd $2.00

But I could see that Dr. Peck took care of other people not so prominent. There are entries of “stranger,” “little girl,” “visitor,” “darkie,” “young man,” or “colored lady,” individuals from different walks of life.

Dr. Peck often saw three to four patients a day. In the 1870s, the most common treatments were tooth extractions. The charge was usually around a dollar per tooth, but strangers often appeared to pay less; sometimes as little as 40 cents. “Gas” (referring to nitrous oxide, or laughing gas) was frequently administered during extractions. As time went on, fillings were more often noted, along with “art.”, for artificial, or false, teeth. An “artificial set” for a tannery foreman, Arthur Samuels, cost $12 and a “full upper and under set” for Mrs. Andre Meixell, $33.

In the 1901 directory, “Anna V. Peck, student” was listed at Dr. Peck’s home address, 705 Sarah St. Upon her graduation from Stroudsburg High School at age 16, Anna began a two-year study of dental surgery mentored by her father, followed by an acceptance to the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia. In 1902, Anna graduated with a D.D.S. degree and became the first female dentist in Monroe County. She practiced dentistry alongside her father until she married Henry Selwood, a postal clerk.

Since I am no expert on humans’ handwriting, I’m not sure if Anna took over the day book entries. But to me, the writing begins to look different in the 1900s, and each book becomes more of a scrapbook, containing newspaper articles affixed with straight pins along with bills, tax receipts, and advertisements tucked between the pages, thus providing a lot of other information.

Now, there was one thing left to do — find some real dental artifacts. My nightly scamper brought me to the newly organized Military Room on the third floor, where I encountered many fascinating objects — artifacts displayed there by collections specialist Bret and intern Gabrielle. Included among the military pieces are historic medical instruments including some dental tools. Not for the faint-hearted, there is a tooth extractor (1795-1845) displayed next to one of Dr. Peck’s day books. On another shelf, used from 1860-1818, lie several shiny plier-like tooth pulling tools. Each is specifically made to grab a certain type of tooth — incisors, bicuspids, molars, etc.

I’m glad my tooth was fixed with modern tools! And while I’m thankful I didn’t have to go to the dentist in the 1700s or 1800s, I enjoyed learning something about “olde time” dentistry and the progress made over the years.

Doing historical research can be quite an adventure. I must remember that the primary sources I looked at told me about only one dentist’s work, but also gave me ideas of what others might have done.
It’s also important to:

  • Use primary and secondary sources to get both big ideas and details
  • Be extremely careful with one-of-a-kind fragile artifacts (wash paws first and turn pages carefully)
  • Think logically about the information found
  • Reconcile different (and maybe contradictory) findings
  • Be thankful for donors who have shared their historic treasures to explore so that we history detectives with questions about the past can find answers!