When you hear the word dentist, what comes to your mind? Do you perhaps think of shrill drills, pain, and various tools and fingers poking around your mouth? Whatever images the word dentist brings to your mind, it probably won’t be desirable collectibles. Yet, antique dental cabinets are popular with collectors.
Dental cabinets from the past are very different from the sterile, often white storage units used by dentists now. Antique dental cabinets are unique pieces of furniture that have beautifully decorative details trimmed with marble or brass. Read this article to learn more about their history, styles, how to identify them and what they are worth.
History of dental cabinets
Dentistry has come a long way since the 19th and early 20th centuries. In those days, dentists used a wider variety of tools than dentists now and they were all unpowered hand tools. It was important to have these tools carefully organized so the dentists could grab the right tools quickly when needed.
In the 19th century, dentists would often travel to various towns to treat their patients. They would carry their instruments in wooden boxes that were lined with velvet and contained many compartments and sliding drawers. The key to instrument storage in the days of the traveling dentists was portability.
When dentists in the early 20th century stopped traveling to see patients and instead let the patients come to them at their permanent practices, they no longer needed portable storage for their tools. Instead, they needed something stationary with multiple compartments for the range of instruments.
The solution was a dental cabinet with separate drawers and compartments for all their instruments. New ideas about safety and infection control in dentistry also affected how dentists stored their equipment. You can read more about the developments in dental safety here.
Styles of antique dental cabinet
The first and more elaborate dental cabinets were made of different types of fine wood. Later, when knowledge of hygiene improved, the cabinets were made of metal, which was easier to keep clean.
Wood dental cabinets
Wooden dental cabinets were not just practical, they were also beautiful decorative objects. Often they had details such as brass or marble trimming, beveled mirrors, glass shelves, and hand-dovetailed drawers. Dovetailing can be a useful tool for dating antique furniture. Find out how it can help you determine the age of your cabinet here.
The makers of antique dental cabinets used a range of fine woods sourced locally and from abroad. Popular woods included maple, cherry, mahogany, walnut, and oak.
Metal Dental Cabinets
While some collectors prefer the more elaborate wooden designs, others opt for the sleeker, more industrial look of dental cabinets made out of metal. These cabinets are sometimes referred to as machine age cabinets and they were built in the popular art déco style. They often have curvature typical of art déco designs.
If you are thinking of buying a metal dental cabinet, you should check it for rust since these cabinets are susceptible to it. If buying a dentist cabinet online, read the listing and inspect the pictures carefully to ensure you are not paying over the odds for a piece affected by rust. You can also ask the seller for more details if necessary.
How to identify an antique dental cabinet?
Before you spend money on a dental medical cabinet, you want to check that it really is antique. So what kind of things should you look out for? You can use the ideas below to identify an antique cabinet. However, if in doubt, especially if the asking price for the cabinet is high, you can always consult a professional antique appraiser.
We have already mentioned the popular types of wood used in wooden dental cabinets, so look out for cabinets made of fine wood. Replica cabinets are often made out of cheaper types of wood or plywood. Antique dental cabinets also have a range of wood in a single cabinet with different wood used for inlays and interiors.
Many antique dentists’ cabinets also have removable drawers that dentists could use when making house calls. Despite most patients coming to the dentist’s office, it was still common for dentists to make occasional house calls especially to wealthy clients. . Removable drawers made it easy to take key tools with them.
Antique dental cabinets had dozens of small drawers, but also drawers within drawers which are a feature newer and replica cabinets are unlikely to have. Often they also had swing-out trays, tambour roll top areas, bi-fold doors, glass doors, and dividers inside the drawer trays.
Is an antique dental cabinet worth anything?
Original antique dental cabinets, both wooden and metallic, are valuable and desirable collectibles. When determining the value of old dental cabinets, you need to consider several factors.
The condition of the cabinet is the main factor. A rusted metal cabinet will be less valuable than one in a rust-free state. Cabinets that have large dents in the metal or chips in the wood will sell for lower prices. If doors or drawers are missing, that will decrease the value further.
If the cabinet has been restored, you should also look out for any old parts, such as drawers or cabinet doors, being replaced with new ones. For example, sometimes missing parts in a wooden cabinet might have been replaced with cheaper wood. This can decrease the value of the cabinet.
The material used will affect the price. For example, a rosewood cabinet can be worth more than one made of oak. The size of the cabinet, its age, and detailing matter, too, when determining the value of antique dental cabinets.
Valuable Antique Cabinets
American Empire Rosewood Dental Cabinet, circa 1820 is for sale on 1stDibs for €12,078.44 This is a rare cabinet with 34 drawers and three doors. A lock system inside the central door operates the other doors.
Oak Dental Cabinet, for sale on eBay at $10,500, is a Harvard dental cabinet from around 1890-1920 with a drop-down desk lid and beautiful decorative details.
Sensational Early 20th Century Dental Cabinet from Italy, is for sale at €19,277.20 on 1st Dibs. It is made out of iron and has 24 drawers and six doors.
Vintage Dental Cabinet from the 1930s, is selling on Etsy and priced at €3,959.76. The cabinet has original hardware, its original finish, and a removable milk glass top.
Where to buy and sell antique dental cabinets?
Online is always a good place to start and besides the three websites our examples came from, there are plenty of others, too. You can find dental cabinets for sale on auction house websites as well as country-specific websites. If buying internationally, check if they ship to your country and whether they insure the items while in transit.
If you are looking for a restoration project or want to make money from selling cabinets you have restored, then good alternatives include flea markets and house and office clearances. You are more likely to find a beautiful piece that has not been restored yet than online. However, there are some unrestored cabinets on the internet, too.
If you are interested in restoration projects, then there are useful videos on YouTube. This one from Doug Schmitt Antiques takes you through the restoration of a Harvard Dental Cabinet.
If you prefer to buy locally, then Craigslist will be a really useful tool for you. The website is free to use and works like the classified section in a newspaper. You can search for ads for dental cabinets and events like garage sales and local auctions.
Now you know what features to look for that will help you identify an antique dental cabinet. You also have some examples of how much original cabinets in good condition can be worth. We have also shared ideas on where to look for them.
When buying in person, make sure to inspect the cabinet fully, including looking inside the drawers and cabinets. And if you are buying online, don’t be afraid to ask the seller for more details and pictures so you can be happy with what you are getting. Especially as many sales are final.
After reading this article, we hope to have covered your questions about antique dental cabinets. However, should you have further questions, write them in the comments section.