Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century

Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century

Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century

Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century

Synopsis

Why are Americans so uniquely obsessed with teeth? Brilliantly white, straight teeth?

Making the American Mouth is at once a history of United States dentistry and a study of a billion-dollar industry. Alyssa Picard chronicles the forces that limited Americans' access to dental care in the early twentieth century and the ways dentists worked to expand that access--and improve the public image of their profession. Comprehensive in scope, this work describes how dentists' early public health commitments withered under the strain of fights over fluoride, mid-century social movements for racial and gender equity, and pressure to insure dental costs. It explains how dentists came to promote cosmetic services, and why Americans were so eager to purchase them. As we move into the twentyfirst century, dentists' success in shaping their industry means that for many, the perfect American smile will remain a distant--though tantalizing--dream.

Excerpt

I was sitting in a university dining hall one afternoon in 1999 when I found a curious advertisement in a copy of the Wall Street Journal that I’d scavenged from the building’s recycling bin to read over lunch. In it, a Lexus logo floated in the middle of a small sea of blank newsprint. Above the logo was one line of type: “Naturally,” it read, “all our children wear braces.” Beneath it was another, the Lexus tagline: “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” The ad accomplished a lot with very little, and I was momentarily taken aback by how much its producers felt they could assume about Wall Street Journal readers.

Where did the ad come from? How, in that time and in that place, did it seem so obvious that getting one’s children’s teeth fixed was “natural”? How could an ad seeking to trade on a shared stock of ideas for sales so comfortably assert that there was something normal, effortless, and socially sanctioned about the “relentless pursuit of perfection,” and that such a pursuit ought to be carried out not only in automotive engineering, but in the intimate interstices of the human body? Why could the ad’s creators be so certain that it was clear to every reader what counted as “perfection,” anyway? There was no doubt, however, that the Lexus adwriter’s finger was on a pulse that beat steadily and pervasively in American consumer culture at the end of the twentieth century. The ad’s central assumptions about what Journal readers might consider “natural” were accurate, and this book is the story of how that came to be.

The Lexus ad, of course, was not the only place where late twentiethcentury American consumers could find dental themes represented in advertising. Dentists themselves were aggressively marketing their orthodontic . . .

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