Solved at last: a century-old mystery involving two long-defunct dental supply companies.


BACK IN THE late 1980s, a dentist friend of mine gave me a gift—his pride and joy, in fact: a catalog published in 1915 by the Buckeye Dental Supply Company of Toledo, Ohio. It was a terrific, one-of-a-kind find, and I considered it among my most cherished dental antiques.

In the early twentieth century, there was at least one dental supply distributor in every U.S. city of any size; major cities had several. Buckeye Dental had disappeared long before I arrived, but whenever I’d riffle through its 982-page catalog, I was always impressed: Its inventory included reception-room furniture, cabinets, lights, sterilizers, instruments and a complete assortment of supplies. I was amazed at the extent of the inventory available from this one-location distributor. I was likewise impressed that this single operation could afford to publish and circulate such an extensive catalog.

Well, I recently came into possession of another catalog, this one also from a long-gone dental supply company: Lee S. Smith & Son, with operations in New York, Pittsburgh and Wheeling, West Virginia. Coincidentally, it too was from 1915—and when I first flipped through its 982 pages, I was astonished to discover that it was exactly the same as my beloved Buckeye Dental volume. Every page, every photo. every product price was identical. I was flabbergasted.

This, I realized, was the answer to the conundrum I’d pondered for 30 years: The reason two small “one-horse” companies in different parts of the country could produce and distribute such an all-inclusive catalog was that they circulated the exact same book, just with a different cover. I can’t begin to speculate how many local distributors sent out this book, with those identical prices, in 1915. Just imagine the market power those companies commanded—presumably far above what they would have been able to achieve were they not working in concert.

My father often said that “the good old days weren’t really that good—today is better.” Concerning the matter of dental consumer choice, I’m sure you agree.

LARRY COHEN, Benco Dental’s chairman and chief customer advocate, has over the past half-century collected hundreds of unique dental artifacts, which reside at Benco’s home office in Pittston, Pennsylvania.