Nitrous oxide’s wild history has many chapters, but this ad for “stress relief to go” from a local dentist just might take the cake.
FIRST SYNTHESIZED in the 1700s, nitrous oxide (a.k.a. laughing gas) was quite possibly the first “party drug.” Writers, theater performers and other curious individuals experimented with it to relax and stimulate creativity. Today, we’d call that drug abuse, but remember that Coca-Cola contained traces of actual cocaine until 1929. What’s a little laughing gas between friends when you’re washing down burgers with cocaine soda?
Nitrous oxide got its legitimate start in health care thanks to Dr. Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist who attended a demonstration in 1844. After seeing a subject bruise himself on a heavy wooden bench without flinching—or even remembering it afterward—Dr. Wells began his own trials. However, following a botched publicity stunt at Massachusetts General Hospital the following year, he was run out of town and closed his practice.
Fast-forward to this 1880s ad for Dr. W.W. Wogan of York, Pennsylvania. You’ll notice it doesn’t depict any actual dentistry. That’s because husbands commonly purchased liquid nitrous oxide from dentists to help their wives find relief from “stressors of the home.” The sale of nitrous oxide for home use lasted well into the 1920s and was especially welcome during Prohibition. Of course, today nitrous oxide is tightly controlled and used only for legitimate medical purposes, but recreational use will always be part of its legacy.
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.