The tooth key was first mentioned in literature in 1742; the first examples were made of iron with a handle shaped like a turnkey. As improvements were made over the years the handle was made of horn, ivory and different types of wood. They were also made in different sizes, with the smaller sizes and shapes being made for children. In the second half of the Eighteenth century the tooth key became the most popular instrument for tooth extractions.
Leading up to the Civil War, tooth care was generally poor, dentists few and dental care expensive. Despite poor dental care, a soldierâ€™s teeth were important on the battlefield. Many recruits were turned down if they lacked opposing upper and lower teeth, considered necessary to bite the end off paper cartridges used with muzzle-loading muskets.
The Confederate army had a dental program and conscripted dentists into the army, usually at the rank of hospital steward, although some held the rank of surgeon. The Union army rejected the idea of a dental corps.
Image Courtesy Wilsonâ€™s Creek National Battlefield; WICR 30592