Past Treasure of the Month – February 2011
The Rosenberg Library Museum was proud to spotlight a rare dental surgeon’s field kit from the Civil War as the February Treasure of the Month. This unusually large kit was manufactured by John D. Chevalier, the first dental supply house in the United States, established in New York in 1833. The kit is believed to have originally belonged to a Confederate soldier trained as a dentist and features over fifty instruments, including forceps, dental elevators, and picks in a hand fabricated rosewood box.
Historians have uncovered a plethora of information on dental and personal hygiene during the mid-1800s by studying teeth, tools, and agents that have been discovered on Civil War battlefields. Artifacts, such as the dental kit, can offer an almost visual account of what it must have been like to live during one of our nation’s most gruesome events.
Dental health in the mid-1800s was not a common priority, and most civilians only visited a dentist to have troublesome teeth extracted. When the Civil War began in 1861, good dental health, in addition to being between the ages of 17 – 45, was surprisingly a requirement of recruits for both sides of the conflict. Dentists who were enlisted as soldiers of either army often kept their tools on hand to be of service wherever necessary. A lack of formal dental care in the Union Army forced field surgeons to practice dentistry in the field, whereas in the Confederate Army, civilian dentists were hired under contract or trained soldiers were supplemented with extra supplies, pay, and rankings as hospital stewards.
As troublesome as it may be to imagine, Union soldiers were only required to have six opposing upper and lower front teeth to become servicemen while Confederate soldiers were only required to have four opposing front teeth. As battles waged forward and drafts increased, men often removed their own front teeth to avoid enlistment. This problem became so severe that army surgeons eventually refused to exempt soldiers whose mouths showed obvious signs of recent extractions.
The availability of supplies came to be the greatest difference in overall soldier health. During the height of the Civil War, typical daily dental practices could include twenty to thirty cavity fillings, the extraction of fifteen to twenty teeth, and the removal of cumbersome tartar — all without the use of anesthesia. Because of Northern blockades, Confederate supplies dwindled and access to basic materials was severely affected. Gold foil, the preferred filling material at the time, became so scarce and extremely expensive that dentists on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line were reduced to using cheaper, more available materials such as tin, amalgams (mercury alloys), and even asbestos.
The showcased dental surgeon’s kit was donated to the Library in 1949 by Mr. Clark Hazlitt, who had purchased it from the estate sale of Mr. W. T. Armstrong (1864 – 1949). Mr. Armstrong, a Galveston attorney and dean of the Galveston Bar Association, was one of the original 1900 Trustees of the Rosenberg Library, was elected to the Rosenberg Library board of directors in 1905, and remained an active member of the board until his death in 1949.