By Michael Sappol, PhD (National Library of Medicine)

Ask Your DentistAsk Your Dentist

DATE: ca. 1930
LENGTH: 13 min
CATEGORY: Educational & Instructional, Silent, Black & White

A dentist invites a young boy: “Come with me, into the visual instruction room.” And with this, Ask Your Dentist, a silent dental film from around 1930, stages a cinematic revue of instructional techniques and tactics. In the course of 13 minutes and 26 seconds, we see: blackboards; plaster casts and models; x-rays; exhibition displays; a projector projecting film footage; a tour of a laboratory; a look through a microscope; animated cartoons; animated diagrams; stop-time animation; a case history acted by actors; and the page of a published book. The parade of instructional devices is the message.

Ask Your Dentist does not choose among them, takes an all-of-the-above approach. Some segments are aimed at children, others at adults. Some parts are fictional narrative, others straight exposition without reference to any story. This is naïve, haphazard, make-it-up-as-you-go-along filmmaking. The parts seem stitched together (and may actually be stitched together from different sources). In viewing Ask Your Dentist, we are taken back to a moment before the conventions of educational film-making have been consolidated. Ask Your Dentist adapts and assimilates a hodge-podge of prior media technologies, genres, and tactics, a process that media historians Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin term “remediation.”

The dentist shows the boy a film of models of teeth.
In “the visual instruction room,” a boy watches a film-within-a-film with his dentist. On screen are plaster models of teeth.

The film came to the National Library of Medicine in the mid-1980s. At the time, the American Dental Association (ADA) was burdened with a collection of some 700-odd films, made between 1920 and 1970, and in various states of wear and decay. The ADA offered its collection to the NLM, which accepted about 300 films (what happened to the others, we know not). Of the acceptees, only a few were projectable, the rest needed conservation. Ask Your Dentist was one of the projectable ones, but still in poor condition: warped, scratched and full of splices.

Dentistry loved the movies. Like the National Tuberculosis Association and a handful of other pioneering health organizations, the American Dental Association was a prolific producer and distributor of motion pictures. Ask Your Dentist was an early offering. The ADA distributed it via mail as a rental, and like many film rentals the copies were shown repeatedly and handled roughly. (The NLM appears to have the sole surviving copy.) It is a bit of a mystery object. The head of the film is broken off (heads tend to break because of stress due to repeated threading onto reels), so Ask Your Dentist lacks title and credits footage. Because of that (and because the ADA did not retain any relevant records), we don’t know the names of the people who made it, when and where it was made, or where it was shown. (In the parlance of film scholarship, it is classified as an “orphan film.”) Markings on the film stock indicate the stock was manufactured in 1924. But one scene in the film shows a book published in 1928, so it could not have been made before then. We also know that the classroom scene was shot at the Frances Willard School (a banner with that name appears); Willard headed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for many years and many schools were named after her (the best-known was in Philadelphia). And we know that, starting in the mid-1930s, the ADA listed it for rental in 16mm and 35mm versions, at $2 a pop (as “A Beneficial Circle Production”), and recommended it “for high school and adult groups” (even though the children in the film appear to be pre-adolescent). It was not the only listing: the ADA also offered pamphlets, lantern slides, posters, three-dimensional models, and other films. 

A short text ad from a journal with a logo of A Beneficial Circle Production.
Ask Your Dentist was listed, along with pamphlets, posters, models, lantern-slide sets, and other films, in the Journal of the American Dental Association 22.2 (1935): p.1978.
National Library of Medicine #101237573

We can’t say how much of the film is missing. The NLM’s copy begins abruptly. In a classroom, a teacher is giving students a blackboard lesson on teeth and dental care. Next the film cuts to plaster models, against a featureless field of black, which demonstrate the grinding motion of healthy teeth. Then a lesson on how teeth structure the underlying “forms of the face.”

A plaster cast of a woman’s head, along with a plaster cast of her teeth, illustrating the under-bite.A plaster mold of a woman’s face and teeth demonstrates the underbite. (Both are undesirable “forms of the face.”) Then a before-and-after: a young boy smiles with dirty teeth, then with clean teeth. Another plaster cast illustrates the dental ideal of “sound straight teeth.” (A pointing device, a pencil, pointlessly directs our attention to the teeth.) Then abruptly, we’re back in the classroom.

A boy asks the teacher a question: “What causes a cavity in a tooth?” We again leave the classroom, to go to a model of a tooth. (This time the pointing device is a dental probe.) An intertitle announces a “cross-section of a molar.” For some reason the filmmakers feel moved to visually explain the very idea of a cross-section:

A frame showing a large model tooth being sawn in half from the top down.
Sawing through a model of a molar to illustrate the concept of the cross-section

We see a coping-saw sawing through a model of a tooth! Then we are shown an animated sequence of the very same cross section, to dramatize how a cavity can quickly grow into a big problem. “It should be filled at once!” Back in the classroom, the boy now asks his teacher: “How does a cavity in a tooth affect the rest of the body?” The teacher answers, referencing the title of the film, “A good question: I suggest that you ASK YOUR DENTIST.”

Next scene. Following his teacher’s suggestion, the boy goes to “Dr. Early Care”. The boy again asks: “How does a cavity in a tooth affect the rest of the body?” The dentist replies: “Come with me, into the visual instruction room.” We suddenly see that this is not a typical dentist’s office. It comes equipped with a visual instruction facility, with a projector and models (like the ones shown earlier). Seated in the visual instruction room, the boy and dentist watch a projected movie, a film within a film. The filmmakers never establish the viewer’s point of view. Are we being shown the movie that the dentist is projecting? The setting of the film switches between the room in which the devices of visual instruction are deployed (in conjunction with the dialogue between the dentist and the boy) and room-less views of devices.

Cartoon animation shows General Germ at the head of an army germ devils marching through the streets pf the body, invading different parts. A street sign reads: 'To the eyes.'
The germ devils march through the body, invading different parts

Then comes the first cartoon sequence. In a cavernous mouth, the germs become a teeming army of germ devils commanded by “General Germ,” a Prussian germ-devil, with Wilhelmine helmet, horns and arrow-headed tail. The general opens a trap door, and orders his army to invade. Momentarily, we switch from cartoon animation to an animated diagram of the body. Then back to the cartoon: the troops march down the highway of the body (the circulatory system?) and invade different parts of the body, each marked by a street sign.

Frame from the film showing the title page of a reference book.
Dental Infection and Systemic Disease by Russell L. Haden, M.A., M.D., 1936

Then we go back to live action. We’re in the visual instruction room. The dentist picks up a book. If the boy, and by extension the film viewer, have not been convinced, this book will persuade. The camera shows the titlepage, Dental Infection and Systemic Disease. It’s by Russell L. Haden, a professor of medicine (not a dentist), who presents “clinical laboratory” experiments and patient case histories, all showing that germs in the teeth affect the health of the entire body. (A rare, and entirely goofy, instance of cine-citation!) The film then illustrates some of the book’s main points, the highlights of the professor’s research and clinical reports.

An animated diagram shows the head and upper torso of a bald man with his organs visible and labeled, 'eyes', 'joints', 'heart', 'kidneys'.In the final segment, we go to a dramatic re-enactment of one of Haden’s cases: a man crippled by germs that originated in his mouth is cured by dental surgery. Then to a tooth-brushing lesson (performed on a plaster model set of teeth with a model toothbrush). Then diagrammatic animations of how dental bacteria affect the parts of the body. Then a series of exhibition models and displays (of the type that one might see at a county fair or in a school), some of them set into clumsy motion by stop-time animation. Then a final cartoon sequence: in Dr. Early Care’s office, a band of anthropomorphized food stuffs—and a toothbrush—chase away General Germ and his germ-devil gang. Back to live action, the dentist triumphantly proclaims: “Dental care is health care.”

So, what to make of this jumble of pedagogical tactics?

A patient struggles while a man pulls his tooth.
Toothpulling, a frequently performed dental procedure, was frequently staged in comedic performance, ca. 1892
National Library of Medicine #101393641

In the 1920s and 30s, there was a widely held belief: “we live in a distinctively modern age, unlike any that existed before”; “we are moderns.” Ask Your Dentist performs that belief, brands its makers and their profession, dentistry, as modern, and tries to encourage its viewers to identify with modernity, and to align dentistry with that identification. The film is as much about the new media of modernity—movies, photographs, exhibition displays, cartoon animation, instructional models, etc.—and modern science—as it is about teeth.

In other words, this is a how-to-get-modern story. For generations, American dentists had struggled with their image and identity: Is the dentist just a tooth-puller and driller whose hands and clothes are dirty with the blood, dirt, and spit of the patient’s mouth? Or is the dentist a respected, scientifically trained, medical professional—a “doctor”? Early 20th-century dentists wanted to be regarded as the latter. But the public still had to be persuaded. Most people avoided a visit to the dentist, and did not go for regular check-ups. A visit to the dentist—even with anesthesia—was a notoriously painful affair. Tooth-pulling was a widely performed dental procedure: It was an era in which many adults wore dentures because dentists routinely pulled out every single tooth, not merely to treat a dental problem, but to prevent a lifetime of problems. No wonder a trip to the dentist was feared. Dentists looked on with envy at the success of physicians in securing public respect and admiration.

View of a dentist, a nurse, and four children, one of whom is sitting in the dental chair in the office.
Modern dentistry, mid-20th century
National Library of Medicine #101441852

And responded by trying to make themselves modern, in every way that they could. Remember the context. In the late 19th and early 20th century, technology was transforming life, at every level, from the global economy to the fine details of everyday life. Newspapers, magazines, novels, movies and theatrical performances continually celebrated the railroad, telephone, radio, automobile, airplane, moving pictures and other inventions. It was a new era of cities, factories, offices, and empires—“modern times.” Progress with a capital P.

But modernity was (is) a moving target. New is modern, old isn’t. Dentists were famously early adopters of anesthesia and the x-ray, and patted themselves on the back for that. But by the 1920s those technologies, though still dazzling, were on a very long list of no-longer-new technological marvels. New was needed, and the profession had to align itself with new arguments, new science, new technologies, and new responsibilities. Ask Your Dentist asserts four of those new claims: (1) dentistry is a bacteriological science that is called on to educate the public in germ theory, because germs in the mouth can sicken the entire body; (2) dentistry is a nutritional science because diet affects the teeth and mouth, and the condition of the teeth and mouth can affect the nutrition the body receives (if you can’t chew, for example); (3) dentistry is an anatomical science that deals with the shape and function of the teeth and jaw, and therefore personal appearance, character, and success in life; and (4) dentistry uses modern media technologies, in schools, community spaces, and the dentist’s office. Taken together, these claims—the themes of Ask Your Dentist—enlarged the scope of dental responsibility, from mouth to the entire body, and from individual patients to the masses, and from adults to children.

Ask Your Dentist, then, participated in emergent culture of visuality. The power of new media, and the ideal of the total media campaign, had recently been demonstrated in the propaganda apparatus of the Great War. And in everyday life, the powers of modern media were everywhere evident. Dentistry lived in a world of proliferating illustrated newspapers, magazines, books, pamphlets and advertisements, featuring eye-catching line drawings, cartoons, and photographs of people and scenes. These publications were distributed through the mail, hawked on street corners, arrayed in newsstands and drugstores. And read at home, in classrooms and libraries, at stations and ferries, on trains and boats. But the culture of visuality went far beyond that: there were department store window displays; museums, county fairs, trade shows, world’s fairs; posters, kiosks, and billboards; and, of course, motion pictures, lantern slide shows, and lectures. The movies, in particular, attracted mass audiences in the movie-houses, but were also increasingly screened in churches, community auditoriums, and schools.

As the visuals proliferated, they all began to run together in the visual field and imagination of the viewer, influenced each other, stole from each other, jostled each other, bid against each other for the attention of the public. Exhibition displays took on the look of magazine layouts; magazine layouts took on the look of exhibition displays. And the layouts increasingly tried to evoke a sense of dynamic motion that referred back to the motion picture, and to the jumble of sights experienced in walks around the crowded city, car and train rides, or overhead from buildings, bridges and airplanes.

The sights and images of modernity were impossible to ignore. And, not surprisingly, a certain group of people began to theorize them, figure out new ways to apply them, and professionalize around them. So our dental how-to-get-modern story is linked to another how-to-get-modern story: the “visual instruction” movement. In the 1920s and 30s, ambitious dentists, many of them active in the American Dental Association and city and state dental societies, took up the banner of visual instruction. In this they were influenced by leading visual educators and educational psychologists who argued that “the modern school” required a modern pedagogy based on the latest and most potent visual technologies, “Science and invention have opened up vast possibilities in the creation of…materials for teaching purposes…. The invention of the photograph and of photoengraving has made possible the illustration of magazines, newspapers, books and school texts on a scale undreamed of heretofore…. The invention of the microscope and telescope have opened our eyes to the existence of worlds that were unknown a short time ago…. The motion picture with and without sound has become a major factor in modern life for the dissemination of information and ideas…”

Visual instructionists advocated and studied (sometimes in controlled experiments) the practices and devices that were already being applied in the commercial world of print, advertising, packaging, and the motion picture industry. (An intersecting group of “business psychologists” promoted the uses of scientific research and psychological principles in commercial marketing.) Like dentists, visual instructionists staked their careers on getting modern through science and technology—in their case, the science and technologies of visuality (and after the rise of radio and sound motion pictures, audiovisuality). They argued that visual demonstration, in illustrations, motion pictures, slide shows, and models and displays, educated and moved viewers in ways that old-fashioned verbal presentation could never hope to match. In their writings, the visual instructionists invoked the word “modern” over and over again, which they contrasted to “primitive times” (an evolutionary model) or merely in opposition to the passé modernity of the immediate past.

The argument was compelling. Visual instruction was taken up by professionals in many fields, especially in public health, and especially in dentistry. The need for the devices of visual instruction, and the systematic application of “visual aids” was frequently argued in the professional dental journals of the 1920s and 30s. “To see is to understand,” argued dentist I.F. Miller in a March 1929 issue of Dental Forum. And so dentists made films like Ask Your Dentist, and used posters and models and displays of the type featured in Ask Your Dentist.

Of course, we also live in a world of proliferating visuality, and have our own new media. If we want to entertain, shape behavior, and audiovisually instruct a mass audience, we feel obliged to use computers, Powerpoint presentations, touchscreens, the Internet, World Wide Web, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, etc. If we produce texts and images and diagrams of the type that often appear in books and magazines and posters, we incorporate those things into our new media. And, if we do resort to print and posters and other displays, we try to make them look like something that might appear on the Web. Ask Your Dentist, then, directs our attention to the long history and rhetorical salience of media qua media: media remediating and hypermediating media. Which happened long ago in the 1920s and 30s. And continues on into the 21st century.

Michael Sappol lives in Stockholm, Sweden and is a visiting researcher at the University of Uppsala. For many years he was a historian, exhibition curator and scholar-in-residence in the History of Medicine Division at NLM. Sappol’s work focuses on the history of anatomy, death, and the visual culture of medicine and science in film, illustration and exhibition. He is the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies (2002) and Dream Anatomy (2006), editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire (2010) and Hidden Treasure (2012), and emeritus curator of Medical Movies [on the Web]. His new book is Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration and the Homonucular Subject (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).


S. E. Bailey & J.-J. Hublin, “The origins of dental modernity,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 147 (Suppl. 54) (2012): 89.

Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

American Dental Association, 150 Years of the American Dental Association: A Pictorial History, 1859–2009 (Virginia Beach: Donning Publications, 2009).

Mark Dery, “Eloquent Hands: Dental Hand Silhouette Album [ca. 1908],” Hidden Treasure (New York: Blast Books, 2012).

Alyssa Picard, Making the American Mouth: Dentistry and Public Health in the 20th Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

Malvin E. Ring, Dentistry: An Illustrated History (New York : Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1992).

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