Dr. Morton’s not-so-ordinary mill

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on April 14, 2016.

Morton's Tooth Manufactory at Etherton (1850) (Source: Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology)

Morton’s Tooth Manufactory at Etherton (1850)
(Source: Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology)

If you’re wondering what a tooth manufactory is, it’s precisely what its name suggests. ‘Manu’ from manus, the Latin word for ‘hand,’ and ‘factory’ from facio meaning ‘to make.’ So Morton’s Tooth Manufactory was a building where workers made artificial teeth by hand — in fact, 200 teeth every 10 minutes!

Morton, of course, is the same Morton of Morton Field, Morton Street, and Morton Circle: Dr. William T.G. Morton (1819 – 1868), the first person to demonstrate the use of ether as a general anesthetic during an operation to remove a tumor from a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that this manufactory was located near these namesakes on what is now the grounds of Wellesley Town Hall.

One could write a book about Dr. Morton’s Wellesley (then West Needham) estate, Etherton — with its gingerbread-style cottage, state-of-the-art piggery, and barn in which he experimented with ether using chickens and his pet dog. But it’s the tooth manufactory that stands out for its singularity.

When exactly the tooth manufactory was constructed and first went into operation is a bit of a mystery. All we know is that Morton purchased the six-acre estate in 1845 and the earliest record of the tooth mill dates from the beginning of 1848.

Why Morton opened a tooth mill is a much easier question to answer. Morton was an innovator and a capitalist. Quite simply, he had visions of what his discoveries could do to the field of medicine, and he very much realized there were lucrative business opportunities thus available to him. Manufacturing false teeth was one of these.

During the mid-19th Century, tooth and gum disease was among the most common health ailments. The impact of this wasn’t just cosmetic. Besides causing severe pain, it affected one’s ability to masticate, or chew — the first step in food digestion — if one lost enough teeth. However, options for replacing teeth were limited. Not just any size or shaped tooth would fit. Nor could many artificial teeth withstand the forces associated with crunching food or the acidic gases that rose from the stomach. There was thus a demand for high-quality false teeth.

Morton’s Tooth Manufactory was like a Ford assembly line crossed with the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein. Each tooth was made through a step-by-step process, a different person responsible for each task.

The initial step occurred on the ground floor of the manufactory where the mill foreman — Morton’s brother-in-law, William Flagg — loaded large blocks of quartz and feldspar, brought directly by rail from a New Jersey quarry, into a steam-powered grinder that pulverized the stones into a fine powder. This was then turned into a paste by adding various metallic oxides, the type and amount dependent on what shade was desired. (After all, few, if anyone, had pearly whites back then.)

The next step saw 14 young women, sitting at tables on the second floor of the manufactory, turning the goop into teeth. Several of them were responsible for filling molds with the paste, inserting two small platinum rivets at the base of each tooth for fastening purposes, and then utilizing spirit lamps to harden the casts. Other workers then removed imperfections and used camel hair brushes to apply a cream-like enamel that would prevent erosion of the artificial teeth. Surfaces were then evened out, and back downstairs the teeth went in order to be fired within a large coal furnace.

Once baked, the teeth went upstairs one last time, where another set of workers checked the final products, placing the loose teeth in jars categorized by tooth shape, size and color — or if meant for dentures, arranged in sets by embedding the teeth into strips of wax. They were then moved to the storage and shipping department where the teeth would eventually be sent, not just to Dr. Morton’s dental practice in Boston, but to places all over the United States and Europe.

How long Morton’s Tooth Manufactory operated is unknown. It’s not listed in the 1860 inventory of industries located in the Town of Needham. Nor is there any mention of it in publications dating after the 1850s.

The closing of the manufactory only a relatively short time after its establishment wouldn’t be all that surprising. Dr. Morton’s life seemed to be one of ups and downs. In the 1840s, he thought he was on the cusp of fame and fortune following his ether demonstration. However, a long drawn-out battle between him and several other doctors over who should be credited with the discovery, and thus given a handsome reward, resulted in no clear resolution. Nor did Morton benefit from his work training surgeons to use ether in military hospitals during the Civil War.

Heavily in debt, Morton died in 1868 at the age of 48, still fighting for recognition…and money. One then can only conclude that the tooth manufactory — novel as it may have been — was not the viable enterprise that Morton had hoped it would become.

Dr. William T.G. Morton (Source: How Success is Won (1885) via archive.org)

Dr. William T.G. Morton
(Source: How Success is Won (1885) via archive.org)