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Making the American Mouth

Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century

Alyssa Picard
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 242
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  • Book Info
    Making the American Mouth
    Book Description:

    Why are Americans so uniquely obsessed with teeth? Brilliantly white, straight teeth?Making the American Mouthis at once a history of United States dentistry and a study of a billion-dollar industry. Alyssa Picard chronicles the forces that limited Americans' access to dental care in the early twentieth century and the ways dentists worked to expand that access--and improve the public image of their profession. Comprehensive in scope, this work describes how dentists' early public health commitments withered under the strain of fights over fluoride, mid-century social movements for racial and gender equity, and pressure to insure dental costs. It explains how dentists came to promote cosmetic services, and why Americans were so eager to purchase them. As we move into the twentyfirst century, dentists' success in shaping their industry means that for many, the perfect American smile will remain a distant--though tantalizing--dream.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4711-4
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    I was sitting in a university dining hall one afternoon in 1999 when I found a curious advertisement in a copy of theWall Street Journalthat I’d scavenged from the building’s recycling bin to read over lunch. In it, a Lexus logo floated in the middle of a small sea of blank newsprint. Above the logo was one line of type: “Naturally,” it read, “all our children wear braces.” Beneath it was another, the Lexus tagline: “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” The ad accomplished a lot with very little, and I was momentarily taken aback by how much its...

  6. Chapter 1 American Dental Hygiene: “Small Flags Attached to Toothbrushes May Be Waved”
    (pp. 14-41)

    In 1910, the eyes of dentists around the country fixed on Cleveland, Ohio, and its suburbs. There, local officials, in cooperation with the Oral Hygiene Committee of the National Dental Association, had begun a new program of publicly funded oral hygiene education and dental prophylaxis for schoolchildren. Dentists hoped that the program would help to persuade Americans of the importance of preventative dental care and periodic consultation with licensed dentists to overall good health. The results of this program would profoundly shape Americans’ ideas about what could and ought to be done for children’s dental health, as well as their...

  7. Chapter 2 Diet and the Dental Critique of American Life: “We Boast of Our Civilization, But We Starve Our Children”
    (pp. 42-71)

    The optimistic spirit that pervaded dentists’ activism for dental hygiene programs masked a deeper, more pessimistic set of fears about what might be causing the alarming rate of tooth decay in the United States. Dentists believed that as much as 90 percent of Americans suffered from tooth decay, and that as much as half of that decay had never been diagnosed or treated by a dentist. Theories proliferated to explain why Americans were so prone to tooth decay, and to the sorts of total-body derangements of health that “focal infection” spreading from a tooth to the rest of the body...

  8. Chapter 3 “Like a Sugar-Coated Pill”: Defining American Dentistry Abroad
    (pp. 72-98)

    In 1921, an author who identified himself as “A Japanese Office Boy” wrote to the editor ofthe Dental Digestto ask a series of impertinent questions about the way Americans practiced dentistry. “Mr. Editor of Small but Helpless Magazine of Toothsome Tendencies,” the letter began, “Somewhat Honorable Sir: Recently I have absorbed one complete course, by correspondence, of English decomposition and letter write…. Having recently completed all Money Orders, Mr. Editor, I now possess delicious abilities to express thoughts occurring in brains or elsewhere in approximate English and so similarly to all newly arrived Americans I hasten to news...

  9. Chapter 4 “This National Stupidity”: American Dental Economics in the 1930s and 1940s
    (pp. 99-116)

    “Gentlemen,” one Boston dentist admonished his colleagues at a professional conference in 1949, “I believe that the seductive delusion and blandishments of a ‘heaven on earth’ philosophy is intriguing and undermining the traditional sane thinking of America.” The Truman administration’s postwar plan for national health insurance, he thought, was leading Americans down a primrose path to socialism. “Only by aggressively applying your superior talents and the knowledge acquired through your education in the fight against this national stupidity,” he counseled, “can you settle your balance with your community, your state and your nation.”¹

    By the middle of the twentieth century,...

  10. Chapter 5 Behind the Fluorine Curtain
    (pp. 117-140)

    Today, mid-twentieth century opposition to the fluoridation of public water supplies is widely remembered as the province of kooks. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 post-nuclear classicDr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, General Jack D. Ripper, his name and character a caustic send-up of Vietnam-era anticommunist militarists, worried that “a foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.” In the view suggested by Kubrick’s portrayal of opposition to water fluoridation—and in the minds of many...

  11. Chapter 6 The “Satisfaction of Dentistry” and the End of Public Health
    (pp. 141-157)

    Fluoride left dentists facing the prospect of markedly reduced income from restorative work. Studies showed that the reduction of tooth decay not only led to fewer fillings and extractions but, with less room for teeth to move about haphazardly in Americans’ mouths, to lower rates of malocclusion, suggesting that Americans’ need for orthodontic services might also drop in fluoride’s wake.¹ Some dentists were optimistic that a lowered need for reparative care might mean that they would have more time to engage in planned preventative treatment. More powerful figures perceived the possibility of a lowered volume of business as a serious...

  12. Chapter 7 The Look of the American Mouth
    (pp. 158-174)

    As dentists groped for measures that would restore dentistry’s status and the financial potential of dentistry as a business, catering to late-twentieth-century Americans’ ever-heightening interest in personal appearance seemed like a wise business decision. For these practitioners, offering high-end prosthetic services, tooth whitening procedures, and especially orthodontic care appeared an obvious choice. While the technological and cultural underpinnings of orthodontics existed early in the twentieth century, the sheer volume of reparative dental service that was necessary in the years before fluoride made orthodontic care, and the aggressive manipulation of already-available ideas about beauty and success, a low priority for both...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 175-182)

    “Brits resort to pulling own teeth,” trumpeted in October 2007. The article went on to explain that a shortage of dentists in the National Health Service was driving patients to take treatment into their own hands. “I took most of my teeth out in the shed with pliers,” one unhappy interviewee said. “I have one to go.”¹ In June 2008, the television channel BBC America began running a documentary calledBritain’s Worst Teeth, which emphasized the two-year wait for some kinds of dental procedures in the United Kingdom. Scary reports from locales in which dental care was inaccessible—particularly...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 183-216)
  15. Index
    (pp. 217-226)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 227-228)