Nineteenth century dentistry

Yesterday I blogged about the use of nitrous oxide as a dental anaesthetic. As is often the way with such things I was speed reading a local history this morning looking for relevant background information for the documentation project I’m working on, and came across a story of how in the 1890’s the local pharmacist in Coleraine (near Hamilton in the Western District – not the one in Ireland) doubled up as the local dentist.

He didn’t have any qualifications in dentistry as such, but took a correspondence course in dentistry – he must have been good at it as he eventually sold his pharmacy business to concentrate on the dentistry business.

At first this is an absolutely horrendous story, up there with the use of by dentists in poor countries of craft work diy power drills, but actually it makes sense when you think about it.

Firstly, dentistry was unregulated in Victoria until 1901 – anyone could set up as a dentist. They might not have been able to claim to be a dental surgeon, but they could provide basic dental services.

And in the 1890’s, these basic dental services probably consisted of extractions and fillings, both of which fitted well with pharmacy – some knowledge was required to correctly administer anaesthetic if required, and some skill in mixing up amalgam mix from first principles would be required. Other than that a bit of dexterity with the drill and brute force with the pliers was all that was required.

Anaesthesia and amalgam fitted well with pharmacy – pharmacists were used to dealing with noxious substances, and would be skilled – probably more so than many of today’s pharmacists – at mixing and compounding material.

More complex work, such as making up false teeth, probably required a greater degree of skill and professional knowledge, which is why you get dentists specifically advertising replacement teeth …

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Replacement teeth again

This time in Dunedin in 1886 …

You might remember that last year I wrote about a rather splendid ‘before and after’ advert from the Merthyr Tydfil Telegraph of 1861 – I’ve just come across an equally splendid image from Dunedin in 1886. Unfortunately I found the image via Pinterest, and all I have in the way of provenance was that it ‘came from a volume of poetry’ published in Dunedin in 1886.

Interestingly the dentist is using Nitrous Oxide as an anaesthetic.

As I’ve written before chloroform took the world by storm after its introduction in 1847, with dentists in Sydney advertising its use as early as 1848 and Queen Victoria having it during childbirth in 1853.

And it wasn’t just Sydney dentists and royalty – Darwin had it during a set of painful dental extractions and his wife Emma was an early adopter of its use during child birth.

However, in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century there began to be doubts about the toxicity of chloroform, and dentists gradually changed to using nitrous oxide, in preference to chloroform.

The change took place during the early 1870’s in New Zealand – the earliest examples I’ve been able to find is this one from the Star

And from the Lyttleton Times

However its use was already known by 1870

As in this article from the Daily Southern Cross of 1870.

So the use of Nitrous Oxide in 1880’s Dunedin is not as unusual as it might first seem – it looks as if New Zealand dentists were as advanced as their UK counterparts, and possibly even a little ahead of the pack …

And in Australia?

screenshot 2019-01-31 17.26.37

Much the same as New Zealand, with the first mentions of nitrous oxide as a dental anaesthetic in 1870 and adverts by dentists for extractions under gas following not long afterwards.

Even so, the death of an 88 year old woman in England  who had died while having her teeth extracted under nitrous oxide anaesthesia garnered a fair amount of coverage, but then people are always suspicious of new things and stories about mishaps involving new treatments always help sell papers …

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Bicycles and women’s liberation …

I’ve long been fascinated by the history and sociology of bicycles – the invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880’s took the world by storm – suddenly there was an affordable means of transport which allowed clerical workers in country towns to live further from their places of work, agricultural workers to travel into town. And crucially allowed women to travel outside of the house, again opening up employment opportunities for them.

The safety bicycle changed people’s lives. If you’ve any doubt, watch people cycling to work on a summer’s morning through Vondelpark in Amsterdam, men and women, on bicycles which are basically updated versions of the original single speed safety bicycle, and you can get a glimpse of how transformative the bicycle was.

Before then people would have walked, or possibly caught a steam train and walked. No cars, no busses, no trams to speak of. Basically outside of cities, no public transport, and horses were expensive to keep and maintain, even for reasonably well off people.

I recently came across a project, the link is from Radio NZ, but the project is actually based at Goldsmith’s in London, which looked at the impact of cycling on women’s clothing.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s, men’s clothing was such that, with the possible exception of bicycle clips, they could just get on and ride – the bicycle was essentially ‘instant on’. No helmets to worry about, no special clothing or lycra, it could be ridden in ordinary clothes, meaning a man could ride one to his place of work without any great difficulty.

This convenience was one of the factors that spread the rapid adoption of cycling for men.

Not so for women. Middle class women were restricted by clothing and fashion that made it difficult to travel much outside of the house – long bulky skirts, voluminous petticoats, etc. What this project looked at was how women adapted clothing so that they could still ride bicycles, but then appear respectable at the other end.

What was particularly interesting was that they looked at patents for various cycling garments, and then made up patterns to make reproductions of the garments, and then try them out – something no clothing curator would have let them do with museum pieces – experimental sociology no less.

If I’ve a criticism of the project it was that it focussed on middle class women. I would have liked to know what working women, who probably had a more restricted wardrobe and less opportunity to purchase or make up extra clothes did – which as this is period where increasing numbers of women went or work in factories, or took up new and previously unknown professions such as ‘lady typewriters”, ie typists, or indeed the large number of young single women employed as domestic servants.

That aside, it’s an interesting project, and highly innovative in its trawling of nineteenth century patents to find information about how women’s dress changed to accommodate the changes in women’s lives made possible by the safety bicycle …

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Crows and bins …

We were visiting a hospital in Melbourne, nothing serious, just J’s periodic checkup with her rheumatologist, and as in the way of hospitals we skipped breakfast to make an early morning appointment, rushed there on the tram, only to discover they were already running 45 minutes late.

So, having skipped breakfast we decided to have some in the hospital cafe.

And as it was a pleasant summer’s day we sat at one of the outside tables.

As you would expect there were the usual sparrows, but also some very large sleek looking crows.

One of the crows hopped up on one of the bins and using native crow cleverness started pulling up the black bin bag liner until it could get at the rubbish, then neatly picked out a freshly deposited sandwich bag, pulled out the half eaten sandwich, and then started to feast on it, later sharing what was left with its fellow crows.

A wonderful example of clever crow behaviour, first in obviously watching who was throwing away what, and then in working out to pull up the bin liner to retrieve the sandwich bag it wanted, and only that bag …

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Louisa M Alcott and the transvestites

Louisa M Alcott aged 25 or thereabouts

(wikipedia commons)

We’ve been watching the recent miniseries of Little Women on the ABC, as always showing years later than everywhere else.

Being male, I, of course, had never read Little Women, and had tended to assume that it was some goody two shoes improving moral tale.

It is, of course, more so than that, the American civil war is a recurrent theme in the background, as well as the social tensions caused by the girls growing up in genteel poverty.

I also knew nothing about Louisa Alcott’s life, so I did what everyone would do, looked her up on wikipedia, discovered not only had she had a hard life – but that to pay the rent she’d written pulp novels featuring spies and transvestites – something that certainly brought a smile.

But, then, on reflection, it’s not so strange.

There are other near contemporary examples, the best known of which is Mary Braddon, who knocked out over eighty gothic and sensation novels to finance her life, in part because of the limited opportunities for middle class women to support themselves outside of conventional married life.

If a mid Victorian middle class woman needed to earn an income and stay respectable the options really came down to:

  • Governess, dull boring, respectable, bad pay, and often at risk of sexual exploitation
  • Actress – often seen as a euphemism for whore, and the pay was terrible
  • Author – poor returns at first, but if you lucked out …
  • Schoolteacher – better than being a governess, but only just

And of course Alcott and Braddon were writing at a time where changes in technology, such as the use of cheap wood pulp paper, lowered the cost of book and magazine production considerably, increasing the number of titles published per year and increasing literacy produced a massive demand for novels and short stories, both as books and serials magazines and newspapers, in the mid Victorian era, making it possible for comparatively unknown writers to gain traction.

And of course, it’s no surprise that there was a lot of gothic and sensation fiction – that is of course what paid in the 1860’s.

So we should celebrate the likes of Braddon and Alcott as tough women who succeeded against all the odds and who made their writing pay, and pay handsomely …

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Newspaper non fiction in colonial South Africa

I’ve written before about Kath Bode’s work resurrecting lost fiction from colonial period Australian newspapers.

At the time, I did say that in one sense it wasn’t a surprise, newspaper fiction had been a major event in the mid to late nineteenth century in the English speaking world.

However, one great gap has always been what was happening in colonial South Africa – clearly there were newspapers and magazines, and no reason to expect that the demand for content was any different, but the lack of digitised resources means that it’s difficult to investigate electronically what was going on.

Happenstance is a wonderful thing however.

I was searching Google Books for something entirely different, and came across a South African book,

Life & travels in the northwest, 1850-1899 : Namaqualand, West Coast & Bushmanland

which, according to the preface, has been compiled from official reports and from magazine and newspaper articles of the time.

So, if people were writing about their travels and explorations, there’s a good chance that they were also writing short stories and novellas about their experience of life, and that these were turning up in the newspapers and magazines of the time …

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Queen Victoria’s first love ?

I recently bought a book.

Not an unknown event, but unusually I bought it for the title alone – The Queen, Her Lover and the Most Notorious Spy in History.

The book can be summarised like this:

After the end of communism in Russia the author, Roland Perry, was researching a book on the Cambridge Spies, including Anthony Blunt’s mission to Germany to recover letters between Queen Victoria and her daughter Vicky – the wife of Kaiser Friedrich III – held in Kronberg in Germany.

During the course of his research, Perry met with several former senior KGB officials in Moscow who told him of compromising material in the letters that had been photographed by Blunt and passed to Moscow, before the originals were deposited in the Royal archive.

One of the claimed revelations was that Queen Victoria had had both a sexual relationship and an illegitimate child at the age of 15, with John, the 13th Lord Elphinstone.

There’s a review of the book and an interview with the author (both from the SMH) available online if you wish to read further.

Now, we know that after her death Queen Victoria’s journals and letters were severely filleted by her daughter Beatrice, so severely that only around a third of the original material remains, and once she’d transcribed and edited the journals Beatrice burned the originals,

We also know that that Victoria wrote around 4000 letters to her daughter over her lifetime, so, given the severe filleting, it was more than possible that the letters contained information previously unknown to historians, and possibly embarrassing to the monarchy, which was busily trying to distance itself from Edward the VIII’s infatuation with the Nazis.

So, if you believe the story of the sexual relationship and illegitimate child, it’s possible that the letters referred to these events.

Certainly John Elphinstone was a member of William IV’s court between 1835 and 1837, was showered with honours and promoted to the Privy Council in 1836, and then shunted off to be Governor of the Madras Presidency in 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession.

If you were a conspiracy theorist, one might almost think that his silence was being bought, and then shunted off to India to ensure his continued silence.

Possibly so, but then we have this from the Monmouthshire Merlin of 8 July 1837

Which shows that the relationship between Victoria and John Elphinstone was public knowledge, and that there was an expectation that he would be recalled from Madras, now that Victoria was queen.

The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the same date, follows its coverage of William IV’s funeral with a similar and longer article about Queen Victoria’s future husband and how the Royal Marriage act – which essentially states that all marriages by members of the Royal family require the approval of the reigning monarch – does not preclude Victoria marrying Elphinstone.

So, not only was the relationship publicly known, there was a widespread expectation that, now that Victoria was queen, that Elphinstone would be recalled and that she would, in due course, marry him – something that was even the subject of satirical commentary at the time.

And her relationship with Elphinstone continued to be remembered even as late as 1886, as can be seen in this piece from the Northern Star in Lismore. (As newspapers of the time tended to often reprint contents from other newspapers, especially overseas ones, without attribution, the article may well appear elsewhere).

So, while we don’t know, and will probably never know, if Victoria and Elphinstone ever actually had a sexual relationship, let alone a child together, what we can say is that there was some sort of public relationship, and one sufficiently strong that there was an expectation that she would marry Elphinstone once she was mistress in her own house.

The interesting thing about all of this is the way that Elphinstone has been written out of the conventional narrative of Queen Victoria’s early years and accession, despite the fact that it was clearly well known and discussed at the time.

One wonders, doesn’t one?

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