Ready for a look at the evolution of the dental chair? From its humble beginnings in 1790 and the fancy parlor dental chair of the early 1900s, to the streamlined workhorse of the 1930s and the colorful marvels of the Mid-Century Modern era, the dental chair has always served its purpose. Here’s a brief look at how the dental chair has advanced and improved through the centuries to the gold standard of today.

windsor chair to illustrateevolution of the dental chair in
Image courtesy of Great Windsor Chairs

An American dentist named Dr. Josiah Flagg Jr. invented the first dental chair in 1790. He modified a Windsor writing chair for use in his practice. This was a plain wooden chair with an attached armrest/small table on it for ease of writing. Dr. Flagg, practicing dentistry in Boston at the time, outfitted the chair with a padded headrest and used the attached table for equipment. It looked similar to this chair, shown. Learn more about the “oldest known dental chair in the United States” at Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry’s Historical Dental Museum Collection.

Ready for dental chair luxury? Thank Dr. James Snell for shifting progress forward — or in this case, backward.

The first reclining chair was created by James Snell of London in 1832. By the late 19th century, there were at least 80 different chair designs on the market. At their home office in Northeast Pennsylvania, Benco Dental showcases several makes and models of vintage dental chairs in their museum. The brainchild of the company’s Chief Customer Advocate, Larry Cohen and his wife, Sally, the museum features dental artifacts collected by Cohen that span the late 1800s to the early 1960s.

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Antique dental chair in museum at Benco Dental home office, Pittston, Pennsylvania.

A brief look at the 1870s when Dr. Lucy Hobbs Taylor spared no expense.

How did the dental chair evolve from this plush-for-its-era model in the 1870s, shown above, which was an improvement on Dr. Flagg’s chair, to this state-of-the-art model, shown below, and other dental chairs available from the nation’s largest independently-owned dental distributor?

Forest Dental Chair to illustrateevolution of the dental chair in
Chair from Dental EZ, courtesy of Benco Dental.

I wondered about that evolution when I purchased the 1870s red upholstered wooden chair to stand in for Dr. Lucy Hobbs Taylor’s treasured dental chair in the Benco Dental museum. The chair was an expensive piece of equipment in Dr. Lucy‘s day and she was duly proud of hers. The first woman in the U.S. to earn a dental degree even mentioned it in her memoirs, including its $100 cost, which, in the early 1870s was quite a sum.

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Image of dental chair from SS White catalog, circa 1867.

A dental chair, shown, from SS White’s 1867 catalog, cost a whopping $85 in its standard model. If a dentist wanted silver-headed nails on the dental chair’s upholstery, that was an upcharge. This SS White “Dental Chair No. 1” looks strikingly similar to the red upholstered wooden chair I bought on eBay for the Benco Dental museum. One difference: “Dental Chair No. 1” features a mechanism to raise and lower the headrest. Benco’s museum model ratchets up and down manually.

Fancy antique dental chair.
SS White fancy dental chair, circa 1867.

SS White carried more elaborate models, such as the “J.O. Whitcomb’s Dental Operating Chair. No.4” , shown, with a price of $230 in its basic format.

Dental chair, circa early 1900s, Benco Dental museum.

This beauty from the early 1900s, shown above, also showcased in the Benco Dental museum, features more adornment than those found in a dental office today. It begins to resemble what is recognized as a dental chair today. This model, shown, was top-of-the-line for its time, and represented a posh in the evolution of the dental chair.

What brought about the shift from fancy parlor chair to streamlined workhorse?

Dental suppliers of the late 19th and early 20th century made sure that dentists who did business with them realized their products were in line with that era’s most current technology. This page from an SS White catalog, shown, illustrates that with phrases such as “first hydraulic” and “first metal-frame”.

Illustration from late 19th century SS White catalog.

When did the dental chair technology takeover begin?

By the 1920s to 1940s, the dental chair became more streamlined. Gone were the fancy features, like fringed upholstery and gilded ironwork. More prized was the latest technology and easy-to-clean advantage of leather.

An ad in The Dental Times.

Mid-Century Modern marvels: Meet the 1960s dental chair

By the 1960s, the dental chair had become a streamlined marvel that Dr. Hobbs could only have imagined. Fashion prevailed, as the chairs became available in some of the more popular hues of the Mid-Century Modern era, like “Biscayne Blue” or “Washington Coral”. Dental chairs were as colorful as the cars!

Weber dental chair unit, and SS White air abrasion unit in Washington Coral, courtesy of Benco Dental.

Whether researching new dental chairs, reupholstering tried –and -true favorites, or hoping for a glimpse of dental history, dental professionals can find it all by scheduling a visit to one of three Benco Dental CenterPoint showrooms nationwide. Contact 1.800.GOBENCO for details.

Ready for an up-close-and-personal tour of the dental chair evolution? Visit the Benco Dental museum at the company’s home office in northeastern Pennsylvania today.