At BKS Dental, we are committed to our local community, and support many organizations in Fort Atkinson. We support the Hoard Historical Museum, which has been a historical museum in Fort Atkinson since 1936.

Among the permanent exhibits in the museum is an Abraham Lincoln Exhibit. This exhibit focuses partly on Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in the 1832 Black Hawk War (when Fort Atkinson was first established as a temporary fort), and partly on how Wisconsinites were affected by the Civil War. You can get a look inside the museum’s non-circulating library in this video about a Civil War soldier’s gear by a Hoard Historical Museum volunteer.

Of course, one item we are interested in about this period is dentistry. Dentistry was an evolving discipline around the time of the Civil War, which made it an interesting time to look back on. 

group of Civil War soldiers in uniform

Itinerant Dentists

Nowadays, we are accustomed to dentists having an office. At BKS Dental, we’re here in our office at 201 Sherman Avenue W, with regular hours five days a week. You can even arrange for appointments on Saturday, sometimes.

However, in the pioneer days and through the Civil War era, most communities in Wisconsin didn’t have their own dentists. Instead, they relied on itinerant dentists, who would travel from town to town. Often, these dentists would have a set route they would travel, going through a dozen or so towns a few times a year.

These traveling dentists faced challenges in every town. First, they had to figure out where they were going to stay. If they were lucky, they would have a former patient in the town who was willing to put them up. This is doubly lucky, because not only does it give a dentist a place to stay, but it serves as a compelling testimonial about the quality of a dentist’s work.

A dentist without a patient who would host them would have to stay at a local tavern or inn, which was usually very crowded and unsanitary, or else ask around for someone willing to put them up for a few days. 

Recruiting Patients

Whether or not a dentist could stay with a former patient, they would often set up shop at a tavern or inn. To recruit patients, dentists would often set up a display featuring their tools outside the tavern or inn where they would be working. The display served the purpose of attracting the curious–not a lot of novel sources of entertainment in the Wisconsin pioneer communities.

People would look at the tools of the dentist’s trade to get a sense of how the dentist could help them. Because people at that time couldn’t go to a website to check a dentist’s education and certification (many of them were neither certified nor educated), the display served a further purpose: it vouched for their expertise and professionalism. To help with this, many itinerant dentists had a second set of tools exclusively for display. These were often made of ivory and had jewels on them to convince people that they should trust this dentist with their teeth.

For many people, that took a lot of trust, because most likely what the dentist was going to do was pull one or more of their teeth. 

Turnkey Solutions

The most common dental tool used in the 19th century was the extraction tool, called a dental key. This was commonly known as the turnkey because it looked like an old fashioned key with a handle on one end and a curved hook on the other. It was also sometimes called a cant hook or, colorfully, a pelican.

Dentists placed the key in the mouth with the hook lodged up against the tooth to be extracted. Then, a turning motion would (hopefully) pull the tooth out. This was not an easy operation, and dentists would often brace the patient’s head between their legs to anchor it or have an assistant hold the head, giving them enough leverage to force the tooth out. See some dental tools of the period displayed by the Wisconsin Dental Association.

However, this isn’t a complicated procedure, which is part of the benefit of the turnkey. It meant that almost anyone who had the strength (and the stomach) for it could extract teeth. Since it’s estimated that there were less than 100 dentists practicing in the entire state of Wisconsin up to 1866, there were many nondentists who found themselves offering turnkey solutions for their communities. Doctors, pharmacists, jewelers, gunsmiths, and blacksmiths commonly performed extractions.

 Turnkey Complications

The turnkey usually worked, but there were things that could go wrong. Sometimes the key would slip and pull out the wrong tooth. Other times, the turnkey would damage the jaw when pulling out a tooth. Doctors sometimes pulled teeth for free because the outcomes were so uncertain that they didn’t want to put their reputations on it.

Little anesthesia was available for these operations, so people often went through them fully aware of the pain, sweating and screaming through a sometimes prolonged operation.

Dental extractions were so common before the Civil War that it affected recruitment. Civil War soldiers had to have six good teeth in the front of their mouth: four on top and two on the bottom so they could tear open their gun cartridges. (Here’s a description of the loading process for a civil war era rifle from the Hoard Historical Museum.)

Filling a Lack

However, by the Civil War, educated dentists were doing more than pulling teeth. They could also repair and even replace teeth in a limited fashion.

To repair teeth, dentists used dental fillings and crowns. These were made of gold whenever possible, and preferably California gold, which was purer than local gold from the Black Hills. People brought in gold coins partly to pay the dentist and partly to supply the material for the fillings and crowns. Dentists would file off gold coins, softening them over a shovel full of hot coals to help work them into the thin foil that would then be hammered into the cavity or around the damaged teeth. Amalgam fillings were also used at this time and became more popular during the Civil War when gold was in short supply. Often a silver coin would supply the necessary silver, mixed with mercury and tin foil carried on hand.

In replacing teeth, dentists often made dentures using vulcanized rubber. These helped hold other teeth from drifting, but weren’t particularly good for chewing. In rare cases, dentists would replace the crown of a tooth that had broken off but had a healthy root. They would put a hickory peg into the healthy root, which would support a replacement tooth in an approximation of the modern dental implant.

Dentists were also beginning to learn how to treat gum disease by cutting away infected gums. They also cleaned away tartar to help prevent gum disease. 

Enjoy Modern Dentistry in Fort Atkinson

We don’t know about you, but revisiting stories of this time make us appreciate the benefits of advanced technology for modern dentistry. If you are looking for modern dentistry in Fort Atkinson, BKS dental can help. Please call (920) 563-7323 or email us today for an appointment. (If you want to learn more about life in pioneer Wisconsin, visit the Hoard Historical Museum.)