Dentistry in 1867

What was dentistry like in 1867? The Dentistry Library, University of Toronto, has digitized many books originating from that time via the Internet Archive. You can browse our collection by visiting our IA page to view books and journals published before 1923.

The following paragraphs briefly highlight some of the popular topics of the dental profession at the time, as described in various sources between 1867 and 1870:

Many dentists in the first part of the 19th century in Canada were itinerants and did not have a stationary office. They travelled around the country with hand instruments fitted in wooden chests (Gullett, 1971). Dentists often were joined by apprentices who would learn about dental procedures from the more experienced (Gullett, 1971). One of the first resident dentists, that is, someone who had an office, was John Roach Spooner, who practiced in Montreal until 1841 (Gullett, 1971). His brother Shearjashub Spooner was a medical doctor and dentist, and wrote a popular book on caring of the teeth in 1836 (Spooner, 1836).


Amalgam in the 1800s was a combination of silver, tin and mercury. There are different alloys used at different times in history. Around the 1860s, it was used as an alternative to gold when filling cavities. Its durable qualities made it popular in dentistry. However, the mercury content has caused much controversy at this time and beyond (Gullett, 1971), giving rise to the term Amalgam Wars (Gullett, 1971). Dr. W. George Beers, the first Dean of Dentistry at McGill wrote in favour of its use in 1871 (Beers, 1871).  

Dr. Chas H. Harding from London, England, describes how to use amalgam in detail:

 “One point strikes me of importance in securing a clean face to amalgam, and smoothness of surface at the edge of the cavity. In the first place, the edges should be as carefully smoothened as if gold is to be used, and the entire preparation of the cavity done as thoroughly as possible. The cavity should be carefully dried and kept so during the plugging; the silver and tin should be ground fine in a mortar after being filed, and washed in salt and water, and dried, then washed again in alcohol and dried in the sun; the mercury should have no sediment. I always purify mine by distillation of the red oxide. The amalgam should be made in a small mortar, and after being well rubbed together, the excess of mercury should be squeezed out and the preparation washed several times in salt and water with the pestle and the finger, and washed again with alcohol; then squeeze out as much more mercury as possible in a chamois with flat pliers and cut into small cakes for use.” (Harding, 1870.)

Nitrous Oxide

Below is a description of how Nitrous Oxide was used in dentistry by Dr. Barnabas Day (Day, 1868):

 “This gas has been extensively used in all the principal cities of the United States and in the Dominion of Canada, with great success, for the last five years. As an anaesthetic for the extraction of teeth, it is certainly far preferable to any in use for that purpose. The fact of this gas, nitrous oxide, being purely a stimulant, acts upon certain parts of the body, particularly the blood, brain and nervous system. Its action resembles pure atmospheric air, which places it far beyond any stimulant in use at the present day. The principal advantage it has over other stimulants, as well as overall anaesthetics, for minor operations, is, that there is no depression or nauseous effects, which are usual after the administration of chloroform and aether. Nitrous oxide, as an anaesthetic, is single in its action, which elevates and supports the nervous system; while with all other anaesthetics, such as chloroform and aether, their action on the system is due to the sedative effect they produce. The constituents of this gas, as an anaesthetic, is sufficient to recommend it; and I am of opinion, that the day is not far distant, when nitrous oxide, or protoxide of nitrogen, will be placed in our materia medica as a remedial agent for the cure of diseases, as well as an anaesthetic.”


During the 1800s dentures were mostly made out of Vulcanite (hardened rubber) plates.  There were different types of vulcanite that varied in hardness and colour ranging from black to pink. Porcelain teeth were placed on the vulcanite plates. Often readjustments had to be made to improve fit. Some vulcanite dentures included a spring holding the top and bottom in place for easier movement. Sometimes a mixture of vulcanite and metals, such as gold or aluminum, were used. A tool called a vulcanizer was used to heat up the rubber for molding.

Dr. Beers describes a scene where the vulcanizer exploded while in use by a dentist:

“My neighbor Mr. C. Brewster, sent in for me on the 22nd of last month, to see the results of the explosion of a vulcanizer, which had just occurred in his laboratory. The scene was one of chaos. The vulcanizer was a Whitney No. ___, for two flasks, and had been in use for about seven years. The brass top thermometer attached, was blown straight up through the ceiling, a distance of twelve feet, making a round hole as clean as if cut with a sharp knife. The copper boiler was thrown into a corner to the left, and would no doubt have gone further but for the impediment of the hard partition.” (Beers, 1970).

Creating Professionalism

The literature in the 1860s and 1870s is rich with articles on how to professionalize dentistry. The following is an example, where the author suggests terminology for dentists to adapt to sound more professional when speaking to colleagues and patients (Kenneth, 1871):

  • Profession NOT Trade
  • Fees NOT Prices
  • Practitioner, Operator, Dentist NOT Workman
  • Patient NOT Customer
  • Instruments in Surgery
  • Tools in the Laboratory
  • Operation, or Specimen of Work NOT Job
  • Student NOT Apprentice
  • Assistant NOT Journeyman
  • Laboratory NOT Workshop


Beers, W.G. (1870). Editorial notes on practical subjects: explosion of a vulcanizer. Canada Journal of Dental Sciences 2(12): 353-354.

Beers, W.G. (1871). Discriminate use of amalgam for filling teeth. John Lovell : Montreal. Available from;view=1up;seq=12 

Day, B.W. (1868). Nitrous oxide, or protoxide of nitrogen, as an anaesthetic. Canada Journal of Dental Sciences 1(1):2.

Gullett, D. W. (1971). A history of dentistry in Canada. Toronto: Published for the Canadian Dental Association by University of Toronto Press.

Harding, C.H. (1870). A few thoughts on Amalgam. Canada Journal of Dental Sciences 3(2): 35-36. December.

Kenneth, H.G. (1871). Something in a name. Canada Journal of Dental Sciences 3 (10): 297.

Dentistry in 1867