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Beauty and the Beast

Back in the 1890s, craftsmanship in dental manufacturing meant chairs
that were built to last. By Larry Cohen

A FEW MONTHS AGO, I spied at an auction something I’d never seen before: a dental chair with legs. Made of cast iron, and with a pump base, it weighs several hundred pounds — but it’s quite elegant all the same, with plush maroon upholstery and hand-painted filigree. It represents perhaps the best $5,000 I’ve ever spent.

It was also a bit of a leap of faith: Unlike most of my collection pieces, to which I have personal connections, I knew very little about this chair when I bought it. Putting on my Sherlock Holmes hat, however, I started investigating my new purchase.

It turns out I now own a Wilkerson Dental Chair, patented and manufactured around 1890 by the SSWhite Dental Mfg. Co. The upholstery seems to be original — as it was marketed in those days, “in finest green or maroon plush for $135.” You could also get it in leather or cane for the same price. Unfortunately, the original owner didn’t see fit to spend the extra seven bucks for seal skin — that was, after all, a lot of money back before automobiles and airplanes and ubiquitous electricity.

To make a dentist’s purchase go down easier, “boxing [was] free.” I expect SSWhite likely freighted it to the practice, first by rail, then by horse — and then by human. Most dental offices then were on the second floor, above a drugstore . . . and I pity the men who had to lug this beast up the steps.

In the late nineteenth century, SSWhite was a manufacturing colossus, with locations in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago, Brooklyn, Atlanta and Rochester, plus offices in Berlin and Buenos Aires. Given the nature of dynamic capitalism, the mighty have certainly fallen. All that’s left of SSWhite today is its complete line of excellent carbide burs. But the team there would surely be heartened to know that almost 130 years after their forebears made this beauty, it’s worth almost 40 times what they originally sold it for. Quality always wins out in the end.