Did This Rare Color-Plate Book Inspire the Six-Month Dental Check-Up?
By Stephen Gertz
"Poems and essays have been written by literary men upon the gout, and there are, of course, countless professional treatises on dentistry; but I have met with only one on toothache which can be called literary: The Tooth-Ache, imagined by Horace Mayhew and realised by George Cruikshank" (Notes and Queries, 10th Series, Aug. 15, 1908, p. 122).
Imagined and realized by Mayhew and Cruikshank in 1849, The Tooth-Ache, in panorama format, provided a panorama of dental torture that was excruciatingly funny - as long as you were the viewer and not the poor wretch suffering the tooth-ache and condemned to the dentist’s chair.
Those were the days when dentists had, essentially, one treatment for tooth-ache: yank the damned tooth out. Sir Humphry Davy had, as early as 1800, had been experimenting with nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which had been discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestley. Davy understood that the anesthetic inebriant would be perfect for short, minor dental procedures; it wore off too fast for longer applications. Soon, dentists were using it.
“In 1844, a local dentist [in Hartford, CT], Horace Wells, tried the gas and made a fool of himself in some unspecified way, according to his wife” (Rob Hardy, M.D., reviewing Ether Day by Julie M.Fenster). Nothing to laugh about, however, for some patients. In a series of London scandals c.1842, dentists and doctors were brought into court for taking advantage of female patients while they were under the influence.
The reputation of dentists was not good. Long before they became fodder for stand-up comedians, dentists were the object of scorn and complaint - and brutal satire. Enter The Tooth-Ache.
Who the heck was Horace Mayhew?
Horace Mayhew, (1816–1872), "had a lengthy career in journalism, serving as sub-editor of Punch with Douglas Jerrold and William Makepeace Thackeray and as editor of the Comic Almanac. In 1845 he was on the staff of contributors to George Cruikshank's Table Book, and was an early contributor to the Illustrated London News... His publications include the humorous sketches ‘Change for a Shilling’, ‘Model Men’, and ‘Model Women and Children’ (all 1848; published in 1872 in one volume entitled Wonderful People); ‘Whom to Marry and How to Get Married’ (1848); ‘A Plate of Heads’, with drawings by Gavarni (1849); ‘The Toothache’ (1849); ‘Guy Faux’ (1849); and ‘Letters Left at the Pastry-Cook's’ (1853). A good-natured man, Ponny (as he was called) is said to have been deeply hurt by harsh criticism of his work..."
"Mayhew was a handsome, captivating man - though reputedly the model for Sir John Tenniel's not-so-handsome white knight in the illustration for Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. He was also a bon vivant and, according to Spielmann, ‘scorned to seek repose before the milkman started on his rounds’ (Spielmann, 328)" (Deborah Vlock, ‘Mayhew, Horace' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004).
He, apparently, scorned dental hygiene and dentists; this satire is hilariously savage on the subject. Of the great George Cruikshank, little need be added here beyond the fact that this book provides his characteristically sharp skewer with a tender target. It's achingly funny; Proust as Paula Poundstone, Remembrance of Root Canals Past.
The book has been suggested to be the foundation for the standard six-month dental check-up; one look at Cruikshank’s engraved plates and the case for preventative dentistry is made. Yet,
"...Claims to the foundation of the 6-month check-up discussed on the dental public health mailing list are "The Tooth-ache" imagined by Horace Mayhew and illustrated by George Cruikshank and a toothpaste advert by Py-Co-Pay Inc. in the 1930s. None of which could be called evidence-based" (Richards, Derek. The Six-Month Dental Check. In Evidence-Based Dentistry).
Originally issued in plain and hand-colored state, OCLC/KVK report seventeen copies in institutional holdings worldwide, the majority of which are hand-colored, yet only two hand-colored copies have come to auction within the last thirty-five years, both of which have repairs of some sort. It’s a genuine rarity, and an excellent inspirer of hilarity.
CRUIKSHANK, George. MAYHEW, Horace. The Tooth-Ache. Imagined by Horace Mayhew and Realized by George Cruikshank. [London]: To be Had, of D. Bogue 86 Fleet Str. And all Booksellers, n.d. . First edition, first issue (with adv. to inner boards). 12° (4 7/8 x 3 7/16 in; 125 x 88 mm). Forty-three numbered hand-colored etchings on three sheets of twenty-four panels folding out to a continuous panorama (4 7/8 x 78 inches; 125 x 1982 mm.). - Cohn 547. Osborne II, 67.
The article was published in “BOOKTRYST - A Nest for Book Lovers”, the new blog by Stephen Gertz. Images courtesy of David Brass. The text is presented here, with our thanks, by permission of the author.