Dentistry (like medicine in general) hasn’t always been as respectable a profession as it is today. In the early 20th century, people with little or no dental education often opened up dental parlors to bring in unsuspecting people from off the street, and often turn them out again as bad or worse than they came in.
But none of these fly-by-night con-men could hold a candle to Philadelphia’s own Painless Parker, whose name and infamy survive until this day.
From Humble Dentist to Shameless Showman
Painless Parker wasn’t born in Philadelphia. He was born Edgar R.R. Parker in St. Martins, New Brunswick, Canada. He came to study dentistry at the Philadelphia Dental College, which would later become the School of Dentistry at Temple University. And it must be said that when he was there, they taught him right, instilling him with a strong conscience and a reluctance to advertise, because doing so was considered unethical at the time.
He moved back to his home town to set up his dental practice, but didn’t see a patient during his first six weeks. He decided advertising might be ethical if he didn’t pay for it in cash, so he traded a sign painter some new dentures for a sign. Still nervous, he put the sign up overnight so no one would see him in the act. But someone took the sign down and put it on a public restroom. Further embarrassed, he retrieved the sign–under cover of darkness–and put it back on his door. He had a patient soon after, but decided he wouldn’t be able to make it if he didn’t try something radical.
Inspired by the fire-and-brimstone preachers he saw on the corners, Parker decided to pitch his services in a similar fashion, saying he could do an extraction for 50 cents and would pay $5 to a person if it hurt. He gave them “hydrocaine” (a mixture of water and cocaine) to dull their senses.
Magical Dentistry Tour
Having found success with his street corner dentistry, Parker decided to take his show on the road. He hired a former P.T. Barnum manager and created the Parker Dental Circus, which toured around Canada and the US with a big band and dancing girls. He drew huge crowds and got a lot of people to agree to having their teeth extracted, which is where the band came in really handy–when they played, you couldn’t hear patients screaming or moaning from the anything-but-painless dentistry they received.
Having gained a bit of a reputation, he decided to take advantage of the rubes in New York City, where he set up shop in 1897 with not just bands and dancing girls but contortionists, too. A huge crowd would show up, and Parker would demonstrate his painless technique by asking for a volunteer from the crowd. A plant from the crowd would be chosen and would sit in the chair on the street and Parker would pretend to extract a tooth, then show the crowd one he had in his palm. Then people who were impressed would be sent inside for their real operation. Parker would tap his feet before he began an extraction so the band would play extra loud to drown out the noise.
Other dentists in New York were none too keen on his shenanigans, and called him “a menace to the dignity of the profession.” They drove him out of town, but he set up again in San Francisco in 1912.
This wasn’t the end of his troubles, as he was sued for false advertising claims. To sidestep them, Parker changed his name, adding “Painless” to his legal name. He then discovered the power of franchising, and set up a chain of West Coast dental offices that brought in some $3 million a year.
Though he may have worked in many places, he is still Philadelphia’s own, and Temple University has his “bucket of teeth” on display at the Weaver Historical Dental Museum, located at Broad and Allegheny. .
Dentistry without the Circus
We’re more than 100 years from when Parker set up his dental circus, and we’re very glad of that. Dentistry has advanced considerably, and now we can really offer you dentistry that, if not completely painless, is certainly much closer than it used to be. We even have sedation dentistry which can help you overcome any lingering anxiety you may have of the dentist.
Above all, we just offer quality dental care for all our patients.
If you would like to learn just how great a modern Philadelphia dentist can be, please call (610) 272-0828 for an appointment at Dental Excellence of Blue Bell.