By Jared Olar
Where did Tazewell County’s pioneers go when they needed to have their teeth checked? The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is that they probably went to the nearest barber or wig-maker.
That fact can be gleaned by a book entitled, “Open Wide – This Won’t Hurt: The History of Dentistry in the Peoria Area,” published in 2000 a Peoria dentist named Curzio Paesani. A copy of Paesani’s book is included in the Local History Room collection of the Pekin Public Library.
Paesani traces the early history of dentistry in America to the landing of a fleet of ships on the shores of Britain’s American colonies on July 6, 1630. Among the English colonists who landed on that date were “three barber-surgeons who were known to treat teeth.” Long ago, barbers did a lot more than just haircuts. Paesani says colonial wig-makers were also known to work on teeth.
Barbers in America continued to wear several different hats even in the 1800s, though in that century formal standards of professionalism and training for dentists were developed. Directing our attention to our own neighborhood, Paesani relates on pages 2-3 that, “In the very early years, even before Peoria was a city, there was a barber pole at #8 Fulton Street, between Water and Washington streets, and on this pole was advertising for cupping and leeching. The owner of this shop was a barber by the name of Fredrich Buffie. He also did dentistry: pulling teeth, opening ‘gum boils’ and providing other services such as the use of leeches for general bleeding.”
The business listings of the 1861 Roots City Directory of Pekin, page 83, shows a single dentist: “DENNIS DR. J. W., Court, north side, 2d door west Capitol.” That means Dr. James Webster Dennis had his dentist office at about the spot that is today occupied by the western half of Pekin National Bank. Cross-referencing Dr. J. W. Dennis in the residential listing of the 1861 city directory, we find on page 22 that Dr. Charles J. Dennis worked in the same office as Dr. J. W. Dennis.
A decade later, the business listings of the Sellers & Bates 1870-71 City Directory of Pekin now showed two dentist offices: those of C. J. Dennis and Albert H. Day. Day’s office was at the “nw cor Court square, over Steiner & Marx’ millinery story.” That’s very close to the former office of the Dennis dentistry practice, which has moved to “ss Court 3 d e Third (upstairs)” – that is, 309 Court St., approximately where the Pekin Times offices are today. The directory shows that Charles (“C. J.”) and J. W. Dennis were still working together as dentists. Six years later, however, Dr. James W. Dennis is listed at 309 Court St. without Charles, while Dr. Albert H. Day is still practicing dentistry at the same spot. A year after that, a third dentist, Dr. Henry H. Fitch, had set up his practice at 427 Court St.
Paesani provides the following survey of Pekin’s earliest dentists on page 77 of his book:
“In an 1870 business directory, an ad for dentists C.J. and J.W. Dennis promoted ‘artificial teeth.’ Pekin had a number of early dentists; one of the first was Dr. H.H. Fitch. He was born in Moor’s, New York, on April 10, 1846. He practiced dentistry in Lee, Massachusetts, moved to Pekin in December 1876, and opened his office. He died suddenly on May 2, 1895. Dentists in Pekin in 1905 included Drs. R.C. Horner, Albert Van Horne and R.C. Willett. Dr. Horner was president of the Peoria County Dental Society in 1906. Dr. Willett moved to Peoria to limit his practice to orthodontia. Other dentists who followed were Drs. C.E. Reed, W.A. Thrush and C.G. Cleveland. Dr. Horner retired in 1933 and moved to Washington, D.C. Dr. Cleveland practiced in Pekin until he was 80 years old.”
It should be noted, however, that the 1870 Pekin city directory has no Dennis dentistry advertisement for “artificial teeth.” Paesani was rather referring to an ad in the 1870 Peoria city directory, reproduced on page 7 of Paesani’s book, in which Dr. Robert G. Dennis advertised artificial teeth made of vulcanized rubber. The ad says the teeth would be made “to the beautiful style of work of which he and C. J. & J. W. DENNIS, Dentists, of Pekin, are the only manufacturers in Central Illinois.” Dr. Robert Dennis first appears in the Peoria city directories in 1859. Robert, Charles, and James were brothers, sons of Thomas James and Martha (Webster) Dennis of Pennsylvania.