ATLAS OBSCURA

Curious Fact of the Week: When Dental Work Came with Song, Dance, and Cocaine

Before local anesthesia could manage the pain, one early 20th century dentist distracted his patients with showgirls and brass bands. Painless Parker — or Edgar Parker as he was born in 1872 — found that a bit of the old razzle dazzle not only added enough commotion to keep a person from focusing too much on a tooth pulling, it drew an audience of prospective patients.

According to Ann Anderson’s book Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show, Parker proclaimed himself “the greatest all-around dentist in this world or the next,” and at the Flatbush Avenue office he set up in Brooklyn, his sign crowed: “Painless Parker. I am positively IT in painless dentistry.” The staggering “IT” loomed four stories tall. Yet even in a respectable, permanent location, he just couldn’t give up the lure of a crowd and would sometimes hit the streets with a brass band or hire tightrope walkers and “human flies” to climb his building. Later he opened a chain of dental parlors on the West Coast and even bought a circus in 1913, so his carnival included acrobats, magicians, jugglers, and even Parker riding atop an elephant himself. 

At one point, his “Painless Parker” moniker was maligned as false advertising, so in 1915 he legally switched his first name to “Painless.” He could then keep his catchy brand until his death in 1952.

For more on this week’s curious fact, keep reading about Painless Parker, or visit the Historical Dental Museum, on Atlas Obscura!