From The Courier, Sunday Feature Magazine of the Norwich Bulletin, Oct. 4, 1964

Connecticut claims this country’s first woman dentist, Mrs. Emmeline Roberts Jones, born in Danielson, later a resident of New Haven. Her husband was a dentist and she learned the trade from him. She kept her patients more or less comfortable in a portable folding chair as she traveled through Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island in the years before the Civil War.

chairIt wasn’t unusual for an aspiring dentist to learn the trade in someone’s office—it was the rule rather than the exception. College training didn’t become an absolute prerequisite for a dentist’s license until 1915.

In 1864, Connecticut didn’t have a dental law—anyone could open an office. And it wasn’t too expensive. Instruments were few and simple. Some dentists made their own.

In 1864, dentistry was still a pretty brutal profession. The first dental college in the United States had been founded in Baltimore by Horace Hayden of Windsor just 25 years before, and there were only three other such schools in the country two of them in Philadelphia, the fourth in Cincinnati.

You generally went to a dentist only when a toothache became unbearable. If you were lucky, the tooth could be filled. The dentist drilled it either with a hand-powered drill, which looked something like an eggbeater, or with one of the new-fangled foot pedal drills which had been introduced in 1864.

The filling was an amalgam of silver (filed from coins) and mercury.

But more often the tooth had to come out. The only anesthesia was laughing gas, which had first been used as an anesthetic by Dr. Horace Wells 20 years before in an office just across Main St. from Central Hall, Hartford, which stood on the present site of the Hartford National Bank and Trust Company’s Riverside office on Central Row.

In early colonial days, barbers doubled as dentists. They pulled teeth, but that was about all the treatment available.

Then traveling dentists appeared, going from town to town, advertising their skills in the local newspapers, and moving on when business began to slacken off.

They cleaned and pulled teeth, supplied false ones, cared for gums and plugged cavities with gold, silver or tinfoil. They sold pastes and powders and at least one of them fitted artificial eyes on the side.

A Mr. Skinner visited Hartford in 1793. His office hours were 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Captain Ramsey’s near the Court House. His advertisement in a newspaper said he “recently received a shipment of human teeth from London. . . which will remain permanently white . . . as those of natural growth.”

His prices for “substituting” teeth ranged from four shillings to four dollars each, and he claimed to be the only person in America skilled at fitting artificial eyes.

At that, his prices for false teeth were pretty high. A few years earlier, Dr. John Greenwood, a sometime Connecticut resident, got $15 for making a full set of false teeth for George Washington. He was the first president’s favorite dentist, and made several sets of teeth for him.

Dentistry changed over the years. Dr. Lucius T. Sheffield of New London introduced the collapsible metal toothpaste tube in 1892. Electricity had made efficient drills a reality. Cocaine had been introduced as a numbing agent, and Novocain was to be developed from it in a few more years.