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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Friday, August 24, 2007

Open Wide

A couple of years ago, a celebrated writer turned to me at a military reenactment and said, “The fife is really the dental drill of musical instruments, isn’t it?”

He was speaking metaphorically, and from a more informed appreciation for music than mine. (He’s written a couple of books on the topic.) But, oddly enough, there is a close connection between music and dentistry in Revolutionary Boston.

Exhibit 1 is John Greenwood (1760-1819), whose memoir I’ve quoted several times on Boston 1775. As described in this posting, Greenwood started playing the fife around age nine or ten, enlisting in the provincial forces before the Battle of Bunker Hill. After the war he became a dentist in New York. Greenwood’s manuscript of music, dated 1785, is now at the New-York Historical Society.

Exhibit 2 is Josiah Flagg. The father of that name (1738-95) was a silversmith and engraver who started publishing psalm books and putting on concerts in Boston in the 1760s and 1770s. His namesake son (1763-1816) created America’s first known chair designed for dentistry—shown above, and now on display at Temple University. Grandson Josiah Foster Flagg (1788-1853) also managed a dental school.

Exhibit 3 is Paul Revere, a childhood friend of the elder Flagg. Of course, we know Revere best as a silversmith and carrier of important messages. But he also engraved many images for printers, including Flagg’s 1764 psalm collection and the frontispiece for William Billings’s first collection of original songs. Indeed, the Music Publishers’ Association has named its engraving awards after Revere. When his other businesses were slow, Revere advertised that he cleaned teeth and made dentures. What would qualify a silversmith to do all those things? Basically, Revere was good at scraping.

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