Today, the idea of “proper” hygiene is entirely different from that of the frontier days due to the advertising of commercial hygiene products such as deodorants and shampoos. Shampoo wasn’t produced until the 1920s and soap made from animal fat and ash was hard on women’s hair so they washed it only once per month. Some soap was made from the soap weed (the yucca plant), which left the hair soft and clean.
Cowboys would often visit town on Saturdays. There they would treat themselves to a bath, haircut and shave then sprinkle themselves with bay rum as an after shave lotion.
Dental hygiene was almost non-existent because toothbrushes and dental floss was not readily available on the frontier. People seldom brushed their teeth. At stagecoach stations and homes, a water bucket hung next to the door with a dipper to be used by everyone. Also a community toothbrush hung by a string next to the water bucket to be shared by anyone who felt compelled to clean his or her teeth. Food often was picked from between the teeth with the tip point of a knife by both men and women.
At one time during the Middle Ages, tooth decay was thought to be caused by “tooth worms.” The forerunner to the toothbrush was a “chew stick” or twig with a frayed tip that acted as a brush. Americans didn’t routinely brush teeth until the 1940s when WWII soldiers were taught to brush daily. People tried several different things to clean their teeth. To name a few: ground egg shells, ash, ground oyster shells, and salt. In 1824, a man named Peabody started adding soap to a paste. In 1883, Colgate started adding chalk and mass produced his paste in jars. However, this paste was not available on the frontier.
When a tooth became a problem, people often turned to a barber or anyone with pliers. Few people know that the barber and dentistry co-existed for many years. Doctors did not practice dentistry. In the middle ages, the barbers became highly skilled in the art of dentistry, perhaps because they already owned the sharp tools such as razors often needed to extract a tooth. To aid in tooth extraction, they designed a tool to extract teeth, much like modern day forceps. For hundreds of years, these barbers provided their services to poorer people who couldn’t afford to see a physician. In the late 1800s, the barbers and dentists took on separate professions.
My dentist, Valdamar Cevallos, explained the red, white and blue barber poles outside barbershops advertised a place to get a haircut and shave. But it also represented a place for dental work and bloodletting — the drawing of blood from a patient in an attempt to cure them of disease or infection. President George Washington had a sore throat one morning and after a series of medical procedures, including the draining of nearly 40 percent of his blood in bloodletting, he died that evening.
Paul Revere is known for his midnight ride to warn that the British were coming. Few people know that besides being a silversmith, he was also a dentist who may have been the first to create bridges and other dental equipment. He identified a friend who had died in battle by recognizing the dental bridge he had created for him. This was probably the first known case of dental forensics.
No medication was available. Ether was first used in 1846 and it would be another 59 years before Novocain would be invented by a German chemist named Alfred Einhorn.
Dentistry has come a long way since Paul Revere, and my dentist, Val, said he no longer performs bloodletting.
To be continued ...