Around the turn of the 20th century, dentistry was still coming into its own as a medical profession, and it still had to contend with its share of con men who would take patients in and give them cheap dentistry, which often left the patient worse off than before. These people, who usually had little or no dental education, would open dental parlors and bring in clients from off the street. Remember, in the days before water fluoridation (and even regular toothbrushing), tooth decay was rampant and many people lost all their teeth in their 20s or before, so there were lots of people who needed dental services they could afford and couldn’t be too choosy.
But there was one dentist who transcended his dental parlor comrades, partly because he was an actual dentist, and partly because he advertised and promoted so shamelessly that he was hugely successful: Painless Parker.
From Humble Dentist to Shameless Showman
Painless’ birth name was Edgar R.R. Parker, and he was determined to make a living as a dentist. He received his dental training from Philadelphia Dental College, and after graduating in 1892 he moved back to his home town of St. Martins in New Brunswick, Canada. Initially reluctant to advertise because he had been taught it was unethical to do so.
After not seeing a patient during his first six weeks in business, he was beginning to get desperate, so he traded a new set of dentures with a sign painter for a new sign, though he was too embarrassed to put it up at first, so he put it up under cover of darkness. However, within a day he found it had been taken down and put on the door to a public restroom. After having retrieved his sign (also under cover of darkness), he put it up on his door and brought in his first patient, a tourist who needed an extraction.
Discouraged by the lack of response, he started pitching his services to people on street corners, offering extractions for 50 cents, and that he’ll pay $5 to anyone if the extraction hurt. Of course, to keep it from hurting, he used what he called “hydrocaine,” a solution of cocaine in water.
Magical Dentistry Tour
With the success of his advertising venture, he decided it was time to go big. Hiring one of P.T. Barnum’s former managers, he founded the Parker Dental Circus, with which he toured around Canada and the US, pulling teeth. He drew in the crowds with a big band, which also had the benefit of concealing the screams and moans of his patients, because his dentistry was actually anything but painless. He later expanded his show by adding dancing girls, though we don’t know whether his “circus” ever had animals, too.
In 1897, Parker decided to take his show off the road and set up shop in New York City, setting up in Brooklyn. Contortionists joined the show at his office, where he would bring in huge crowds of people. He would show how painless his dentistry was by taking a volunteer from the crowd, an employee. The man would sit in his chair and Parker would pretend to pull his tooth, revealing a tooth he had had in his palm for the crowd to admire. When more people needed their teeth pulled, they would be sent inside for the real operation.
Suffering the heat from dentists in New York, who called him “a menace to the dignity of the profession,” Parker moved west and set up shop in San Francisco in 1912. Shortly thereafter he was pursued by more claims that he was misleading his patients with false advertising, so he legally changed his name to Painless so he could continue using the moniker.
He not only continued to practice for many years, but set up a chain of West Coast dental offices and earned $3 million a year on the franchises.
Dentistry without the Circus
At B&D Dental Excellence, we are proud to show how much dentistry has evolved in the more than 100 years since Parker set up his outrageous show. Not the least of the changes is that we give you quality dentistry without big brass bands and dancing girls, because you don’t need any distractions.
If you would like to learn for yourself about a Rockland County dentist who is highly professional, please call 845-627-7645 for an appointment at B & D Dental Excellence.