Thursday, 22 March 2012

Vintage sounds of dentistry at the British Dental Asssociation Museum

A few weeks ago I visited Birwood Dental Care to record the sounds of dental instruments in action. Last week, I expanded on this collection of historic dentistry sounds by visiting the British Dental Association Museum where Melanie Parker - who runs the education and outreach programme at the Museum - kindly demonstrated the use of many of the objects in the collection so that I could hear them. These recordings relate to comments made by interviewees earlier in the Sonic Wallpaper project, and will be used to animate the fantasies and imaginings which looking at the MoDA wallpaper collections inspired.

Ivory dentures and denture brush photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of the BDA Museum

The objects in the BDA Museum are fascinating, ranging from dentures made from vulcanite and porcelain or ivory through to intricate sets of instruments and elaborate cases for tooth-picks. I was intrigued to learn about the relationships between privilege, status, and the care of one's teeth, and to see how the objects and rituals associated with dental health have evolved over the past couple of hundred years. There is much social history to be gleaned from exploring the collection at the BDA Museum. For instance, the ivory dentures photographed above have holes at the front in order to put pins into to then attach real human teeth. Such teeth were often taken from dead soldiers, and were known as ‘Waterloo teeth' because of the plundering of soldiers' bodies for teeth which took place following the Battle of Waterloo.

It will probably not surprise you to learn that I was principally interested in objects in the collection which might produce recordable sounds, such as a foot-treadle dental engine invented by James B Morrison in 1871. According to the BDA Museum's article on the history of dental drills "this foot operated machine based on the principles of the treadle sewing machine achieved 2000 rpm greatly increasing the rotation speed [of the spinning drill bit]." I don't know about you, but I find this an infinitely more soothing sound than that of our modern-day dentist's drills!

I made several other recordings of historic dental drills, including a 200-year-old hand drill, the operations of which I documented with both a contact microphone blu-tacked onto the dentures which were being drilled, and with a stereo shotgun microphone pointing at the table where Melanie was operating the drill.

The reason for this elaborate set-up is that when we are at the dentist's, we mostly hear the sounds of what happens as vibrations conducted through the bones in our head. Contact microphones work by picking up on vibrations of sound as they travel through matter, and I hoped that in recording the sounds of a dental drill using contact-microphones, I might be able to simulate the way that we hear dentistry in our own mouths. The results are appropriately scratchy and uncomfortable to listen to, and are unsurprisingly very different from the recordings I made using a stereo shotgun microphone.

De-accessioned dentures containing human teeth photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of the BDA Museum

I think you can hear a lot more of the teeth and the drilling action in the contact microphone recording (above) and more of the rattly mechanism of the 200 year old Finzi hand drill in the stereo shotgun microphone recording (below).

Finzi hand drill photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of the BDA Museum

The sound of squeezing toothpaste out of a tube is almost completely inaudible, but in the past when dentifrice or toothpaste were supplied in tins or ceramic pots, the sounds associated with beginning and ending everyday tooth-brushing rituals were quite different from today.

Cherry toothpaste pot photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of the BDA Museum

Dentifrice tin photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of the BDA Museum

Another sound which I found especially interesting to compare to its contemporary counterpart is the sound of the wooden dispensary chair. This was a piece of apparatus designed to tilt a patient's head backwards so that the dentist could get at their teeth. It is creaky and wooden, and does not purr or beep like its electronic, modern-day equivalent! For both my recording of the chair at Birwood Dental Care and the BDA Museum, I used binaural microphones to record the motions of the chair. The reason for this is that I think one always hears this sound from the perspective of being a patient; of stepping up into the dentist's chair, sitting down on it, and being compelled by its movements to lie back. I've put the two recordings here side by side, so that you can compare them.

Both recordings were made with a set of SP-TFB-2 - Sound Professionals - Low Noise In-Ear Binaural Microphones connected to an Edirol R-09. I discovered these microphones through the wonderful Binaural Diaries of Ollie Hall.

From the point of view of the Sonic Wallpaper project, these recordings are very interesting as the more modern dentist's chair undeniably has an association with converted old houses and thickly-overpainted textured wallpaper, whereas I have no memories or associations with the sounds of the dispensary chair, and therefore no way of visualising what kind of space it would originally have been used in. I imagine it is unlikely that there would have been wallpaper in the rooms in 1800s Britain where the treadle-operated foot drill or the dispensary chair were originally put to use, but I am not really sure. Any ideas, anyone?

My favourite recording from the BDA Museum adventure is definitely the contact-microphone recording, as I think it is visceral and uncomfortable in just the way that having a drill working away at your own your teeth can be. I am not sure yet how I will use this sound in a Sonic Wallpaper, but it relates to a wallpaper design which made some of my interview participants very uncomfortable, and so I feel it to be an appropriate sound for the project on several levels.

I'm also rather fond of this recording, which was made using an old set of dentures made of vulcanite with porcelain teeth, and a denture-cleaning brush. Melanie explained to me that for a long time a roll and flick motion was prescribed as the finest approach to cleaning your teeth, and as you can hear this produces a very particular rhythm.

Many thanks to the BDA Museum for all your help recording these sounds of historic dental tools in action. Stay tuned to see how they shall be incorporated into the forthcoming Sonic Wallpaper designs.

ETA: Melanie Parker read this article and has the following comments on the links between dentistry and wallpaper:

I think the dental dispensary probably would have been rather stark because it was where the urban poor went for treatment. The foot drill, however, could be associated with wallpaper. As far as we can tell it would have been used by a wide-range of practitioners i.e. those working in dental dispensaries and dental hospitals treating the poor, pharmacists who also undertook dentistry or whom the dentist visited (some foot drills could be broken down and put in a wooden case – suitcase style – to be easily transported) and by high-class dentists who of course would have had very nice surgeries with plush wallpaper.

Thank You, Melanie.


  1. Felix, the closing of toothpaste and dentrifrice tins are so DECISIVE. I love those recordings.

  2. They're amazing, aren't they? Very short, percussive, and so descriptive of a different kind of vessel from today's plastic squeezy tube.

  3. Now, that's pretty fascinating. It's amazing how much different it feels from what we expect in the dental office nowadays. Dentistry has come a long way, evolving into what many are familiar with today. For one thing, it's really quite hard to imagine tools like these without the proper anesthesia!

    -Trinidad Philipps

  4. Dental Care to record the sounds of dental instruments in action.
    The things in the BDA Art gallery are amazing, which range from veneers made from vulcanite and pottery or cream color through to complex places of equipment and complex cases for tooth-picks.There is much social record to be learned from discovering the selection at the BDA Art gallery. For example, the cream color veneers captured.Dental Instruments