The Disastrous Beginnings
In the nineteenth century, dentures were expensive, and could only be afforded by a fortunate few. In 1851, a “Miracle Rubber” was founded, which was of tremendous value to denture makers.
The new rubber was called Vulcanite, and it was used to make the moldings for dentures. The discovery of this new material allowed dentists to drop the price of dentures and, finally, the average person was able to afford a pair. However, this would be short-lived.Processing of vulcanite was still expensive and no one had claimed the processing patent. Almost ten years later, this all changed. In 1868, Josiah Bacon, a businessperson, gained control of this production process, purchasing the patent so he would have sole control over manufacturing and distribution of vulcanite. Bacon demanded fees from individual dental practices, raising the fees based on the size of the practice. To add insult to injury, he charged an extra dollar for each denture replacing up to five teeth, and two dollars for dentures with six or more teeth.
To put this in perspective, an extra dollar in the 1850s equals more than $30 today. Plus, average wages were significantly lower in the 19th century. In 1860, laborers made about 10 cents an hour! That is a mere $6 a week, and only $300 per year! Carpenter salaries were not much better at 14 cents an hour, which is $8.40 a day or $436 per year! If you were fortunate enough to have a higher paying job, wages were still shockingly low. For example, Union Army Privates earned $11 a week; that is only $572 per year! Firemen made a measly 15 cents an hour, averaging $9.00 a week or $468 per year!
Mr. Bacon decided he had the right to examine each and every dentist’s office and records to ensure his patent was being honored. He became a tyrant and eventually, the necessity of his product led dentists to resent him. He only made matters worse by hiring spies to travel the country in search of any dentists who may be violating his rights and ignoring his patent. Mr. Bacon went so far as to advertise in newspapers to intimidate dentist, threatening to sue those who did not honor his monopoly over the vulcanite material.
None of this helped his reputation. He was despised by dentists near and far. On April 13th, 1879, Josiah Bacon was found shot to death in a San Francisco Hotel. (Surprised?! We did not think so.) During the investigation, officers discovered that all the San Francisco dentists they spoke to held a deep-seeded resentment toward the victim. In fact, witnesses recounted that several dentists had actually threatened Mr. Bacon’s life before his murder. The pool of suspects was enormous.
Luckily, authorities caught a break. Some days later, Dr. Samuel Chalfont, a dentist under the control of Mr. Bacon’s vulcanite monopoly, surrendered to police. Samuel Chalfant was a denture dentist in Delaware who was making vulcanite dentures without a patent and didn’t want to pay the fee, so he fled to St. Louis, then to San Francisco, where Bacon caught up with him and the two men had several confrontations. He claimed that Mr. Bacon had begun legal proceedings to prevent him from making the vulcanite dentures in Wilmington, Delaware. Bacon’s murder trial was sensational, publicized throughout the country. Dr. Chafont was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin prison. Remarkably, he escaped prison after 3 years, but authorities eventually recaptured him and he was forced to serve out the rest of his sentence. Finally, in 1881, the patents expired and dentists could finally live in peace, and make dentures as they chose once again.Who would have thought that dentures had such a sordid, bloody history?