Filling in the gaps – Dental care in colonial Milton

Dental care might not have been high on the list of priorities for the first European colonists to New Zealand, but it’s an important aspect of life experience. Gum or tooth infections and loss of teeth can have some serious health implications, and result in pain, changes to diet and need for care. Poor dental health doesn’t just mean bad teeth, it can increase your risk factors for all kinds of other diseases!

At the same time, visiting the dentist could be a dangerous and frightening thing to do. Dentistry methods in the 1800s were often quite brutal, pulling out rather than repairing teeth. While anaesthetic was available in the form of chloroform and nitrous oxide gas, this sometimes had dangers of its own (more on this in later blogs).  People practicing dentistry were rarely trained in dentistry alone, and often practiced it on the side of doctoring, dispensing medicines or even shopkeeping! Alternatively you could be lucky enough to find a travelling or visiting dentist who would pluck the offending teeth from you quickly during their sojourns to town. In Milton, J.P. Armstrong (whose main practice was in Dunedin) often performed this role. All in all, dentistry in early colonial times was very different to dentistry today.

Visiting dentists provided some of the only means of professional dental treatment for people in colonial Milton. Newspaper typesetters apparently could not always spell dentistry correctly… Accessed via Papers Past (National Library of New Zealand)
Excerpt from the Star (Issue 6708, 22nd Nov 1889) describing tooth-pulling practices in the 1800s. Accessed through Papers Past (National Library of New Zealand)

There’s definitely evidence for some dental issues in the Milton cemetery sample – lots of cavities, plaque and tooth loss during life. But our town doctor and his wife both have fillings – indicating that they at least could afford dental care. I

A single filling cost at least 5 shillings in the late 1800s in Dunedin , that’s probably for basic amalgam rather than gold. It’s hard to estimate how much a filling was relative to earnings of the day, but during the 1880s the average rural labourer was earning between 14-20 shillings per week (according to Margaret Galt’s doctoral thesis on the topic). So one basic filling was around a third of a week’s income for rural labourers and unlikely to have been prioritised relative to other costs.

Dentistry advertisements with pricings from the 1890s in Otago (Otago Daily Times, Issue 10941, 23rd Oct 1897, accessed via Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand)

It’s quite rare to find fillings still in teeth in archaeology, and we were particularly interested in the doctor’s filling because it’s a lovely, shiny gold colour, indicating it might have cost quite a lot. We analysed the fillings of the couple using Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (EDS). The EDS is a very fancy machine that basically bombards a sample with electrons and looks at the x-rays emitted by it. Different elements have different characteristic EDS spectra, so we can see what samples are made of.

So what did we find? GOLD! Well, a very small bit of gold anyway. The doctor’s filling doesn’t just look shiny, it actually is pure gold. Most dental adverts from the time have this as the most expensive form of filling. We can’t find any price lists from Otago, but in the late 1890s in Thames a gold filling would set you back over 10 shillings (Thames Star, Volume XXIX, Issue 8683, 10th June 1897).

EDS spectrum from analysis of the Doctor’s filling

His wife’s dental care was more basic though, her filling is an amalgam containing mostly tin, but with a bit of silver in there too. Amalgam was a much cheaper form of filling, generally costing between 5 and 7 shillings. The composition of her filling is slightly odd though, as most amalgams are silver-tin-mercury mixes. Silver-tin alone is brittle, making the filling likely to break. It’s possible that this filling did once contain mercury, but water flowing through the burial has dissolved and removed it. Either that or she was on the receiving end of seriously some sub-standard dentistry in life…

Charlotte King

More information:

Te Ara. Dental Care.

Galt, M. N. (1985). Wealth and Income in New Zealand: c. 1870 to c. 1939. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis Victoria University of Wellington. (

Nicholson, J.W. and Connor, J.A. (2002) Chemistry of Medical and Dental Materials. Royal Society of Chemistry: Cambridge.

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