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

By Alyssa Picard | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
American Dental Hygiene
“Small Flags Attached to Toothbrushes May Be Waved”

In 1910, the eyes of dentists around the country fixed on Cleveland, Ohio, and its suburbs. There, local officials, in cooperation with the Oral Hygiene Committee of the National Dental Association, had begun a new program of publicly funded oral hygiene education and dental prophylaxis for schoolchildren. Dentists hoped that the program would help to persuade Americans of the importance of preventative dental care and periodic consultation with licensed dentists to overall good health. The results of this program would profoundly shape Americans’ ideas about what could and ought to be done for children’s dental health, as well as their ideas about what habits of oral hygiene and health could be properly regarded as American. School oral hygiene programs helped link national identity with good dental health and an aesthetically pleasing appearance. Simultaneously, these programs influenced contemporary ideas about the roles of the school and the state, the constructions of childhood and citizenship, and the gender roles of dental health care workers.

Cleveland, Ohio, offered several advantages to dentists hoping to demonstrate the value of a publicly supported oral hygiene campaign. It was a thriving manufacturing city and an attractive place of landing for immigrant workers, whom dentists regarded as particularly in need of dental care because of their low incomes, poor health, and intransigent refusal to adapt to American ways of life. Among Cleveland’s immigrants were significant numbers of Jews and Italians. Dentists, like turn-of-the-century social workers, regarded these two groups as the most difficult to assimilate; if the hygiene program

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