by Michael Danley, RDH
For hundreds of years, the dental profession has been the subject of artists in the forms of etchings, paintings, posters, Victorian trade cards, postcards, and more. Through these artists we are able to gain insights to our history.
My fascination with collecting began at the age on 10 with baseball cards. Then, I was on to stamps and coins, albums and 45s, retro clothes, midcentury modern, etc. You get the idea.
Having been in the dental profession since 1969, mostly as a hygienist, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I decided to start collecting dental items. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me sooner. Maybe because I never heard of anyone who collected dental items. Besides, what is there to collect: old toothbrushes and instruments? Not so exciting!
Turns out there is a list of collectibles as long as the names of those pesky bacteria we studied in school. Let me start with what I call dental art. When I tell people I sell dental art, they look at me and say, “Huh?” To which I reply, “Artwork that relates to dentistry.” Once I started looking, I was amazed at how much great dental-related ephemera exists. This is our word-for-the-day: ephemera, which means paper collectibles. Paper items include postcards, Victorian trade cards (the first form of color advertising), old ads, journals and catalogs, posters, comic books, games, vintage textbooks, paintings, and more.
Some of my favorite artwork comes from French advertising art, early- to mid-1900s postcards from around the world, and Victorian trade cards from the late 1800s. Victorian trade cards were the first form of mass-produced color advertising. They were most popular during the Victorian era of the late 1800s and were used to promote one’s business or trade. Most often, the artwork on the card had no relation to the service or business it was promoting. They were often collected and put in scrapbooks. As a result, many thousands survived and are available at reasonable prices.
Many dentists gave out trade cards, often with their fees printed on the back. Patent medicines were very popular at the time and were promoted as well. Dr. Thomas’ eclectic oil, which cured everything from toothache to lameness, was one of the most popular. Also popular were gargling ointments and teething cures, such as Winslow’s Soothing Syrup (which contained cocaine and harmed many infants).
As trade cards waned in popularity, postcards took their place. In the early 1900s, postcards were the period’s version of today’s Twitter. Mail was often delivered twice a day and not all families had telephones. For a one-cent stamp, it was the quickest, cheapest form of communication. Hundreds of dental-themed cards were designed with most selling today for under $10. Rare cards (especially European) can go for hundreds of dollars.
Old dental journals and catalogs contain a wide variety of black and white illustrations depicting the tools and supplies of the period. The Dental Cosmos was the most popular publication from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. You will find some unusual items in this type of journal.
Another source of historical ephemera is old newspaper ads. When I say old, I’m talking about issues dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Newspapers from those eras hold up better than more recent ones, because they were printed on a durable, cotton-like paper. If you dig around enough, you can find illustrated ads by Josiah Flagg (inventor of the dental headrest) and George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Greenwood.
Other collectibles include ceramic pot lids and tins that held toothpaste, dentist giveaways, toothbrush holders, company marketing items, glass bottles that held dental cures, toothbrushes (made with bone, rubber, felt, metal, ivory), plates with dental themes, pin-backs, buttons and ribbons from conventions, and dental equipment and furniture.
By preserving and displaying our history, you are telling your patients that the dental profession is important, interesting, and something you are proud of. I have found these displays often promote conversations with patients, which then give us the opportunity to have some fun and talk about the modern advances and new products arriving almost daily.
These unique items can be easily displayed in a glass case in your office or in a shadow box on the wall. If you work in an office with boring artwork on the walls, you might suggest decorating with vintage posters. The variety ranges from historical to contemporary, serious to humorous. One of my favorite framed items is a 1950s toothbrush gun with the advertising from the box. It’s a great three-dimensional item and gets lots of comments from patients.
If you are ever in the Baltimore or Washington, D.C., area, I highly recommend a visit to the National Museum of Dentistry, which is housed in the first dental school in the world — the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Their collection is amazing.
Dental collectibles tell a little story about the history of dentistry and show a uniqueness not found in other offices. When was the last time someone commented about your office wall art? For the best selection of dental posters, visit Dental Poster Art at my website, www.dentalposterart.com.
Michael Danley, RDH, started Danley’s Dental Art (now Dental Poster Art) in 2003 as a means to share his collection of dental art prints. The company is based in Fort Myers, Florida. The website for the company is www.dental posterart.com.
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