Before the advent of overnight shipping, dental distributors needed to base close to their customers — right on top of them, even. By Larry Cohen
Back in 1930, when my father, Ben, decided to open a dental-supply “depot,” as they were called at the time, he rented one room on the fifth floor of the largest office structure in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania: the Miners Bank Building.
In those days, downtown was where the dentists were, and this one 12-story building alone boasted 24 dentists and six dental labs. I spent my teenage summers and vacations as a Benco delivery boy, walking all over downtown delivering very small orders. Dentists and labs used to call daily, ordering onesies and twosies of things like a package of matrix bands, 12 copper bands, a box of anesthetic, a one-ounce bottle of silicate or formocresol, five ounces of alloy, one pound of mercury and on and on. Many of my deliveries were denture teeth, which I ferried to the 12 removable labs within walking distance of the Miners Bank (a vintage postcard of which you see here).
The situation in Wilkes-Barre was replicated in smaller cities nationwide. Eastern Pennsylvania and western New York alone were dotted with a number of small independent dental depots in large office buildings. There were independent distributors in Scranton, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Allentown, Easton, Erie, Binghamton, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo; larger population centers, of course, had three, four or more distributors.
Logistics were everything. This was an America before supermarkets — well, a few A&Ps were around — with independent grocers on every corner. That’s how it was with dental distributors as well.
Times have certainly changed. Dental distribution has also changed dramatically, and one of the primary agents of that transformation was (you guessed it!) United Parcel Service, the first company able to efficiently distribute packages across the country.
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 world headquarters in Pittston, Pennsylvania.