Today’s archival blast from classifieds past, and our latest bolt down the rabbit hole of history, is an ad for a Vancouver dentist on October 3, 1917, who apparently was a dab hand at replacing lost teeth.

His business problem? It appears some people needed convincing that having false teeth instead of holes in your mouth was important.

What good does it do?” screams the headline, before ‘Dr Lowe,’ who doesn’t provide an actual address where one could come see him (demonstrating just how small the city was back then), gives five reasons to replace lose teeth.

  1. FILLS UP SPACES IN YOUR MOUTH: Can’t argue, though so too would cardboard wadding or putty.
  2. REMOVES LINES IN THE FACE AND HOLLOWS IN THE CHEEKS: See putty.
  3. GIVES INCREASED BITING AND CHEWING SURFACE: Can’t argue this one. Teeth would appear to be the superior option.
  4. TAKES STRAIN FROM OVERWORKED TEETH: Don’t let your three natural choppers do all the work!
  5. CHANGES ENTIRE FACIAL EXPRESSION: If you’re looking to not resemble a rail car hobo, teeth will help do the job.
  6. ENABLES PROPER CHEWING AND MASTICATING OF FOOD: That’s a sixth reason, but we’ll accept it.

Actually, there’s a seventh reason, and it’s the big snake oil-y finish:

NOT A RELIEF BUT A PERMANENT CURE FOR ALL STOMACH TROUBLE

Wow. “All” stomach trouble?

Cancer, acid reflux, hernia, bullet holes? False teeth will fix those?

Bold claims weren’t an odd thing in the dental industry in 1917, indeed dentistry itself was just forming as an art form, and ethics were often the first casualty of the desire to convince folks that sitting in a dentist’s chair wouldn’t leave them with pain, infection, and possibly worse.

Dr Lowe left his mark in newspaper ads of the time, and the ads are funny in retrospect, but who was he?

Here’s what I could find. He had an office on West Hastings and Carrall Streets, and he had quite the ego.

Look closely at the building signage, behind the woman selling chestnuts off a cart, above the Baltimore Oyster Saloon, and below the sign advertising an appearance by Broadway actor Leo Carrillo (later renowned as Pancho in the Sisco Kid TV series and movies).

The sign on the building says, “Dr. Lowe – Canada’s Greatest Dentist.” Well gee, don’t do anything in half measures, Sawbones.

This is where we go down the first rabbit hole. Here’s how that building, which is still standing, looks today.

Dentists back in this time didn’t think twice about coining nicknames to sell the idea that they were the best in town, but the best in the country? Doc Lowe was clearly not shy of self esteem. But he kind of had to be up front with his marketing, because a few blocks down the road, on 101 East Hastings, you would have found the home office of Dr. Roy Mellor, AKA ‘Painless Parker’.

Mellor wasn’t painless, and his name wasn’t Parker; rather, he was paid by a Canadian born charlatan named Painless Parker, who had set up the first medical group of its kind, with dozens of dental practices up and down the west coast, employing 70 dentists when he died a millionaire in the 1950’s.

The catch? Parker was actually one of the worst dentists in North America, if not the worst.

Having been turned onto dentistry by the advice of a phrenologist, he worked his way through dental school… as a door-to-door dentist.

After being expelled for that, he would later ‘earn’ his dental license elsewhere after begging the Dean to let him pass. He lost his license in several US states, and was suspended in California for false advertising when the California legislature passed a law saying a dentist couldn’t advertise using anything but their legal name.

So, of course, he changed his first name to ‘Painless’ and duly got his license back.

The story goes, he had no customers for the first several weeks he set up as a dentist, so he offered free false teeth to a signmaker to paint him up a nice one. A competitor stole the sign overnight and nailed it up over an outhouse. Parker later stole it back.

Undeterred, Painless Parker became a household name with brash advertising and, later, ran a ‘dental circus’. Literally. I mean he even teamed up with PT Barnum’s former secretary to do it. Elephants would parade down the street with his ad plastered on the side. Dancing girls and jugglers were deployed. He’d show up in town with a brass band and top hat, and tell crowds that with his special ‘hydrocaine’ solution (basically watered down cocaine), he could pull teeth painlessly for 50c, or he’d pay you $5.

He’d use a fake plant in the crowd to ‘extract’ a molar with no pain to the amazement of all present, he wore a necklace of 300+ teeth he said he’d pulled in one day, had a bucket at his feet for the teeth he would pull that day, and the marks would line up to have their own teeth yanked in anything but painless fashion.

Parker would apparently tap his foot to signal to the band to raise their volume, to cover the screams of the patients, for whom the ‘hydrocaine’ rarely worked.

He was a shonk. But he became a wealthy shonk, and made a fortune peddling dental products, which would help sell the franchise dental practices around the coast as legitimate. And over time… they were.

As much as Parker was terrible, his terrible nature and reputation actually helped accelerate the setting of dental standards, and he pioneered the group medical practice concept, even as he ripped off thousands.

I can’t tell you if Vancoucer’s Roy Mellor was actually a good dentist or not, but I can tell you that the ‘Painless Parker’ practice didn’t stay on 101 East Hastings forever. There was a new Painless Parker seven blocks west within the decade, next to the Famous Cloak and Suit Company on West Hastings.

The Bob Hope and Jane Russell film, Paleface, in 1948, was loosely based on Parker’s life, with Hope playing ‘Painless Potter’. Parker reportedly enjoyed the publicity.

Today, only one of Painless Parker’s dental offices still stands, in Los Angeles, California, though the Painless name is nowhere to be seen.

And hey, if you have a bad tooth, get a dentist to fix it. You know, to fill those hollow cheeks.

 

 

 

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