A Very Victorian Fourth of July from TheDailyFloss historian

Cats, kids, and explosives! What could be more American?

Ah, the Fourth of July! That most American of holidays: enjoy a day off from work, relax with family and friends, cook meats on the grill, and then set off dangerous, but legal, fireworks in the evening. There’s no other holiday like it.

Greased Pig, Anyone?

Since my specialty is mid-to late 19th century social history, I’m sharing a bit about how our ancestors marked the Fourth of July. Did they celebrate with quiet reflection of what it means to be American? Apparently not.

After doing some research and reading, it seems that our fore-bearers celebrated much the same way we do, although with a bit more physical exertion and a lot more fireworks. They held all manner of activities, such as parades, bicycle races, picnics, and band concerts.

The following advertisements illustrate the wide range of activities and fun our great-grandparents enjoyed. Baseball (or Base Ball in the 19th century) seems to be pretty popular.  And you thought the Victorians were stuffy and boring. How would you like to spend your Fourth of July chasing a greased pig? On a side note, I once went to a country fair where I witnessed this event. Fun seemed to be had by all involved (well, maybe not the pig).

An advertisement from The Great Bend Weekly Tribune, Great Bend, KS. July 21, 1895
Ad found in The Philipsburg Mail, Philipsburg, Montana. June 13, 1889
Clipping from The Times - Newspapers.com
The Times, Philadelphia, PA. July 4, 1890

An Explosive Celebration

fireworks_ad_Phila_1866 - Newspapers.com
The Times, Philadelphia, PA. July 5, 1892

And they set off fireworks! Lots of fireworks! It seems fireworks during this era, like ours, were cheap and plentiful. Despite the very real danger of fire (especially in a time when most buildings were made of wood), every town seemed to have some sort of fireworks display, not just large cities like Philadelphia.

An article in The Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania), lists a myriad fireworks for July 4, 1899 and they sound dazzling.

Clipping from Reading Times - Newspapers.com

Below is a snippet of copy from the above article from The Reading Times. It details all the wonderful fireworks available for purchase in Reading, Pennsylvania circa July, 1899.

“The Fourth of July Fireworks will be right up to date. There will be “Klondike Fountains”, “X-Ray Photographs”, “Old Harry’s Visiting Cards”, and “Money to Burn”.

I don’t know what any of those are, but I’d love to see them, wouldn’t you?

However you celebrate your Fourth of July, make it a safe and happy holiday. Don’t let those “Klondike Fountains” get you!

Jenn Ochman at the 2018 Fourth of July celebration in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

About the blogger

Guest blogger Jenn Ochman, Database Publishing Production Specialist in the Branding and Communication Department at Benco Dental, dedicates her time outside work to historical reenactment. She shares knowledge of dental history with TheDailyFloss.com readers on a monthly basis.

Legends of lost teeth: A word on European mice with sharp teeth, Dr. Rosemary S. Wells and Tooth Fairy Barbie

Ever wonder where the legend of the Tooth Fairy comes from? You know, the little entity that takes away a baby tooth and exchanges it for money or a small gift? Are Americans the only people with a crazy ritual to mark the loss of a primary tooth? Apparently not!

Illustration from an antique children’s book. Image in the public domain/ Free Vintage Illustrations.

It seems many countries and peoples have legends and observances regarding the loss of a primary tooth. Most involve 1. the tooth, 2. an action, 3. prayers to an animal known for its strong teeth, to ensure the adult teeth grow in strongly. For instance, in some American Indian cultures, the child (or the adult) was instructed to throw the tooth in a certain direction, then run around the house four times, all the while reciting, “Beaver, put a new tooth in my jaw.” Other American Indian groups directed the child to bury the tooth at the entrance to the lodge.

My, what sharp teeth you have

Many European cultures associated the mouse with good dentistry, due to its sharp teeth, so there were many customs linking the mouse with expired deciduous teeth. They involved people throwing the baby tooth over their shoulders, out a window, or out of the house. At the same time, a request was made of the mouse to replace it with a stronger tooth. In France, the child was directed to throw the tooth under the bed for the mouse to eat and then replace with a new, strong one.

So how does this mutate into the Tooth Fairy?

By the late 19th century, the French ritual evolved so that the mouse no longer replaced the tooth with a new one, but instead exchanged it for a small gift or coin. French children left the tooth in their shoes and the little mouse exchanged it overnight. From here, the ritual crossed the Atlantic and in the early 20th century, the mouse morphed into a good fairy in America.

Fascinated with fairies

Image in the public domain/Free Vintage Illustrations.

In the early 20th century, America and Britain were fascinated by the thought of fairies, with artists and writers discovering anew the mystery and enchantment. Why shouldn’t a fairy bring gifts to young children suffering the trauma of a lost tooth?

The Tooth Fairy seems to be a wholly American invention, first appearing in print in a children’s play in 1927. The legend existed some time before that, as its inclusion in the play meant the public was familiar with the concept.

By the middle of the 20th century, with the popularity of Disney, fairies became an accepted component of childhood.

The Tooth Fairy has Dr. Rosemary S. Wells to thank

A retired dental professor even created a museum (now closed) in her home, collecting all manner of memorabilia related to the Tooth Fairy. Dr. Rosemary S. Wells operated the Tooth Fairy Museum in Deerfield, Illinois, starting in 1993. Information can be found about it here. She was considered the foremost authority on the Tooth Fairy until her death in 2000.


Most cultures still associate an animal with a fond farewell to baby teeth, but Americans look to the Tooth Fairy. She’s such an enshrined part of American culture, that in 1994 the Mattel toy company created a Tooth Fairy Barbie (above).

If that’s not the ultimate sign of celebrity status, then what is?

About the blogger

Guest blogger Jenn Ochman, Database Publishing Production Specialist in the Branding and Communication Department at Benco Dental, dedicates her time outside work to historical reenactment. She shares knowledge of dental history with TheDailyFloss.com readers on a monthly basis.

Tommy Tucker’s Tooth: Walt Disney touted dental care before Mickey Mouse was king

Early film showcased everything from horror to zany comedy to … dental education films.
Yes, that’s right, one of the uses of early silent film was to educate children on proper dental hygiene!

Tommy_Tucker's_ToothOne of the first films of its kind, Tommy Tucker’s Tooth (1922) was produced by none other than Walt Disney, six years before he introduced the world to Mickey Mouse in 1928 in Steamboat Willie.

In December of 1922, a Kansas City dentist named Thomas B. McCrum went to the office of the Laugh-O-Gram film studio, where a very young Walt Disney was working; he wanted Disney to create an educational film about children’s dental health. He signed a contract with Disney to have him produce and create 500 copies of the film called Tommy Tucker’s Tooth. Disney went on to use the money from this production to move to Hollywood and start up his own cartoon studio.

TommyTuckerToothThe resulting production was a silent, 15-minute live-action film with animated inserts, focusing on two boys, Tommy Tucker, a young man who takes care of his teeth and appearance, and Jimmy Jones, who neglects his oral hygiene. When Tommy is hired for the job both youngsters apply for, Jimmy realizes the error of his ways, cleans up his mouth and his act, and eventually finds gainful employment.

Clarateeth Disney produced another dental film for Dr. McCrum, called Clara Cleans Her Teeth. The role of Clara was played by Disney’s own niece. By then, he had a studio set up in Hollywood and the credits on this picture reflect that. Disney went on to make more educational films for the dental market for 30 years, as well as produce plenty of cartoons starring everyone’s favorite mouse, Mickey.


About the blogger

Guest blogger Jenn Ochman, Database Publishing Production Specialist in the Branding and Communication Department at Benco Dental, dedicates her time outside work to historical reenactment. She shares knowledge of dental history with TheDailyFloss.com readers on a monthly basis.

Electrifying & Deadly Developments

An early Ritter X-ray unit from the 1920s, courtesy of the museum at Benco Dental, Pittston.

The first American book on X-rays (discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen of Wurzburg, Germany) appeared in 1896 and by July of that year the intraoral fluoroscope was invented by William H. Rollins. Also in July of 1896, Dr. Charles Edmund Kells, Jr. (1856-1928) taught the first clinic on the use of X-rays in dentistry. He would go on to be fascinated by the science of X-rays and also electricity. His passion for X-rays would cost him dearly. Kells became one of the most noted of a handful of “X-ray Martyrs”.

Meet the most noted of “X-ray Martyrs”

Photo courtesy of Jeff Sengstack

Dr. Kells, born in New Orleans, was the son of a successful dentist. In 1876 he enrolled as a student at the New York Dental College. There he met and became friendly with technicians from Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. He started to spend time in the lab and was fascinated by Edison’s efforts in early incandescent lighting and his experiments in electricity. He could already see the applications for dentistry. It was a whole new untested frontier and he wanted to be at the forefront of it. When the Edison Electric Light Company began to supply power to major industries in New Orleans, Dr. Kells signed up for service, becoming the city’s first dentist to use street current to power his dental equipment. Kells wired his office himself and connected it to the power grid outside his office.

High hopes for the uses of electricity

An advertisement of some of the many early dental equipment that was electrically powered.

Dr. Kells had high hopes for the uses of electricity, both in the dental office and elsewhere. Like Edison, his mind began to whirl with all sorts of new inventions, not the least of which was for an automatic electric suction pump which drained saliva, a wonderful invention that did away with using surgical sponges in both dentistry and general surgery. He also registered patents for other items powered by electricity, including an electric thermostat, a fire extinguisher, and a drinking fountain.

Between early electricity and early X-rays, the dental office was a minefield of dangers, some of which were recognized and others which had yet to appear.

While Dr. Kells’s ordeal with X-rays took time to be realized, he understood the dangers of electricity almost as soon as he hooked up his office. He was so worried about it, he sent a letter to the editor of the “Dental Cosmos”, the leading professional dental publication at the time, asking him about the risks in using electricity in the dental operatory. Even as he did so, at the same time he sent a letter to S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Company, asking if they could make electric dental instruments for him.

A 1915 S.S.White ad, featuring electrified equipment.

The editor, Dr. Grier, responded:

“The use of commercial lighting current, as shown by the apparatus exhibited by you, their employment to give the light and heat needed and to actuate the motors employed in the dental office, opens up a fascinating and almost unlimited field of application.… Unfortunately, these currents, especially the light arc, possess an electromotive force and strength far beyond the needs of the case, and therein lies the risk of their employment.… THE POSSIBLE TRANSFERENCE OF THE CURRENT FROM THE APPARATUS TO THE PERSON OF THE OPERATOR OR THE PATIENT.…”

An illustration of the freak accident that occurred in New York City many years earlier. This just compounded people’s fear of electricity.

There had been a scare over electricity in New York City several years earlier and people were still not over it. Eventually though, people came to accept electricity in the dental office. Harder to overcome, was the deadly repercussions of all the X-ray experiments Dr. Kells had done, using his own hands.

Now, of course, we understand what happens to repeated exposure of body parts to X-ray, cancer.

In 1913 Kells installed the first commercial X-ray unit made especially for use in dentistry. Dr. Kells, in developing his groundbreaking use of X-rays in dentistry, had developed malignant growths on his left hand. It was the beginning of years of agony. He later noted the dangers of radiation had been recognized even before then, and no knowledgeable doctor would hold a film in the mouth of his patient or in any way expose his hands to the direct rays. Eventually, he had to have the tips of his fingers of his left hand cut off. After more years of exposure, he had to have several fingers removed. That still did not stop the cancerous growths and eventually he had to have his left arm amputated.

Early X-ray machines could be dangerous for more than their radiation. As Dr. Grier had indicated in his response to Kells in “Dental Cosmos”, the electricity that powered these contraptions could also be hazardous. The exposed high-tension wires of these devices caused several serious accidents and a few fatalities by themselves.

Still, today we are indebted to Dr. Kells and other “X-ray Martyrs” like him, who helped make modern dentistry what it is today, despite the early dangers.

About the blogger

Guest blogger Jenn Ochman, Database Publishing Production Specialist in the Branding and Communication Department at Benco Dental, dedicates her time outside work to historical reenactment. She shares knowledge of dental history with TheDailyFloss.com readers on a monthly basis.

Tribute to Gertrude E. Curtis, one of the first African-American female dentists

To celebrate Black History Month, let’s shine a spotlight on this unsung groundbreaking woman. Biographical information was in short supply, but The New York Age, an African-American newspaper, featured Dr. Gertrude E. Curtis prominently in its society pages. It was 1909 when Gertrude E. Curtis graduated from the College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia. Dr. […]

Headed to Northeastern PA? This small Dental Museum packs a punch.

America’s largest privately-owned dental distributor has a surprise in store for all who visit its home office situated in the rolling hills of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Neatly tucked amidst the Benco Dental CenterPoint East distribution center and office complex: a fine dental museum. The brainchild of the company’s Chief Customer Advocate, Larry Cohen and his wife, Sally, […]