J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pulling Teeth in Colonial Boston

Before John Baker arrived from London and promoted the notion of specialized “surgeon dentists,” it looks like most Bostonians went to their regular doctors for dental care—which usually meant having teeth pulled rather than repaired. Indeed, losing one’s teeth seem to have been an experience that connected people.

John Cary, the biographer of Dr. Joseph Warren, wrote: “During the first years of practice, Warren charged one shilling, four pence for the extraction of teeth, one of his most common medical services.” On 27 Jan 1765, for example, Warren recorded extracting a tooth from Hannah Flucker, who was then fourteen years old. Her father was Thomas Flucker, later the last Secretary of the royal province, and her younger sister Lucy married Henry Knox.

Dr. Elisha Story extracted teeth from town watchman Benjamin Burdick’s wife and children. Indeed, Story’s office records for 12 Oct 1768 seem to be the only documentation for one of those children. Burdick and Knox were both at the Boston Massacre, trying to calm the conflict.

Ame [pronounced, I think, as “Amy”] and Elizabeth Cumings were two sisters who came to Boston from Scotland in the 1760s to set up a shop. Among the many things they sold, according to their ad in the 11 Nov 1765 Boston Gazette, were “Teeth Tincture and Powder.” In 1771 Knox rented space from the Cumingses for his first bookshop.

Merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary on 14 June 1769:

Sent for Dr. [James] Lloyd to have my Tooth drawn & had not Resolution to go thro’ the Operation.
One person who didn’t remove teeth was the painter John Singleton Copley (whose painting of Warren appears above, and who also painted Flucker). But the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr., who rarely passed by a chance for a pun, reportedly told a man to go to Copley’s house to have a tooth drawn. Drawn—get it? (With jokes like that, it’s no surprise that Dr. Byles’s congregation swiftly voted to remove him from their pulpit after the war began.)


pilgrimchick said...

I admire the in-depth records on every day life that are available to scholars in 18th century history. My work with 17th century history can be very speculatively-based in such areas. For example, in early Plymouth colony, the barber-surgeon, Samuel Fuller, is thought to have performed such services given the presence of implements for the task listed in his 1633 inventory. However, there are no records of his actually performing that, or any other, service. A shame, though, more than anything else.

J. L. Bell said...

I feel the same way about the grass in the 19th century! Vital records for Massachusetts in the 1700s are a mess.

In one area of life, I understand, the 1600s offers more sources than the 1700s: illicit sex. Because colonial Massachusetts criminalized adultery, fornication before marriage, bestiality, and homosexuality, there are some pretty detailed legal records about those behaviors.

Provincial Massachusetts (i.e., 1690s on) lets much of that activity slip into the shadows. That makes the juiciest gossip so much harder to find.