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“Teeth Extracted with Care”

July 27, 2012

The July 1859 circular shown above, part of the DRT Library’s collection of Cumings family papers, provides a small window into dentistry and orthodontics on the eve of the Civil War. (In August 1859, twenty-six dentists meeting at Niagara Falls, New York, founded the American Dental Association.)

As someone who suffered through three years of braces as a child, Archivist Caitlin Donnelly was particularly intrigued by Libbey’s assertion that he could correct “irregularities of children’s teeth…by means of elastic cords and springs.” Yikes! She was surprised to discover that, although the term “braces” wasn’t coined until the early 1900s, orthodontic braces were invented in the early 1800s and preoccupation with straight teeth and proper jaw alignment dates back to the time of the ancient Egyptians.

Census and voter registration records provide a bit more information about the doctor who was “permanently located in Brenham, for the practice of Dentistry.” He was James Lewis Libbey, a Virginian who was approximately thirty-one years old in 1859. The following year, Libbey was still living in Brenham with his twenty-two-year-old wife Ada and one-month-old daughter Mary. James and Ada spent some time in Illinois during the 1860s; their son William was born there in 1866. In 1870, James, Ada, and William were living southeastern Kansas, where James worked as a furniture dealer. By 1880, the family had moved again, and James had resumed his dental practice in Watsonville, California, located near the coast approximately ninety miles south of San Francisco. The 1900 census lists Ada, now widowed, living in the Watsonville home of her son William G., his wife¬† Carrie, and the couple’s two young children.

References and Further Reading

A brief history of dentistry is available through the Academy of General Dentistry. A timeline of dental history is also available through the website of Dr. Gene Patch.

A brief history of braces and orthodontics is available through the website of Dr. David Evans, and a longer history was published in the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics.

Photographs of and information about nineteenth-century dental tools are available here and here.

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

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