Appalachia Appalachian Dialect

Tooth Pullers

Pap's school picture

Jerry Marshall Wilson – Pap

tooth drawers, tooth pullers noun A pair of pliers, often used to extract an aching tooth.
1913 Kephart Our Sthn High 34 He also owned the only “tooth pullers” in the settlement; a pair of universal forceps that he designed, forged, fired out, and wielded with barbaric grit. 1982 Slone How We Talked 104 Tooth pullers or tooth drawers. A kind of pliers made in the blacksmith shop. Mountain people endured a lot of pain, and had to. Each community had someone who owned a pair of tooth-pullers. I remember my father had some and kept them in the drawers of the sewing machine. Every few weeks someone would come with an aching tooth. Father would sit him down in a straight back chair, give him a good “swig”of whiskey, take one himself, and pull the tooth. The patient would wash out with another mouthful of moonshine, and they both went back to work. 1994-97 Montgomery Coll. tooth drawers I sent the daughter to borrow Frank’s tooth drawers (Cardwell); tooth pullers (Adams, Brown, Cardwell, Jones, Norris, Weaver).

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English


When Pap was about 13 years old he had horrible toothache, the kind that keeps you up at night. One morning just after dawn he decided he couldn’t lay in that bed one more minute and suffer. He quietly slipped out of the house and headed over the mountain to see his Grandpa and Grandma who lived in Pine Log. As he reached their house the sun was coming up.

Pap’s Grandpa said the only way to fix the tooth was to pull it. He got a pair of pliers and tried to pull Pap’s tooth. Pap said the tooth just wouldn’t budge, but the pain was so bad he couldn’t stand it and wanted that tooth out in the worst way.

His grandparents had an old sliver of mirror hanging outside where you could see to shave or comb your hair. Grandpa was afraid he’d hurt Pap if he pulled anymore so Pap decided he’d pull it himself. While looking in the mirror, he got the pliers around the tooth. Pap pulled as hard as he could for as long as could, which wasn’t all that long because he passed out cold from the pain.

Pap’s Grandpa and Grandma decided they didn’t care what it took they were going to get this boy to the dentist— and they did. The dentist pulled the tooth and that ended Pap’s horrible toothache.


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  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    July 21, 2016 at 11:57 pm

    I remember our Dad saying the local barber pulled their teeth. I don’t remember him sharing any details about it, but I guess it was pretty common back in those days.
    When our teeth would get loose when we were kids, our Dad would pull them. He had this knack of saying, “Let me have a look cause you can’t go to bed with it that loose.” Then before we even knew what was happening, he’d pinch the gum above the tooth and out the tooth would come. All we’d feel is the pinch, not the pull. And I gotta say, that was a blessing when one had a loose painful tooth.
    Hope everyone’s having a great safe week.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    July 21, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    There are dentists in Connecticut today who take the same approach to dentistry!

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    July 21, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    I have heard that my Second Great-Grandfather Henry Clay Burnett was an accomplished “Tooth Jumper” and alleged to be able to extract teeth with less pain with a large nail flattened on the end and a hammer than those others extracted with tooth pullers.

  • Reply
    anita griffith
    July 21, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks b.Ruth for explaining sugar tit.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    July 21, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    and Jackie, are you sure your folks didn’t use “birch twig toothbrushes”?
    A lot of us mountain folks remember the birch toothbrush. Dad said they went thru many of them, sometimes getting a birch twig while out hunting then chewing it into little slivers and pushing it all around in the teeth to clean them. He said, he used his twig brush to clean a “chaw of baccer” off his teeth, before going home. His Mom didn’t want them to use that vice even though she used snuff most all her life. Figure that one out! ha
    Thanks Tipper,
    Your post today is bringing up all types of tooth memories from the dusty corners of my mind!

  • Reply
    July 21, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    When I lived in Asheville, I had a very good dentist. After I came back out here to further my job, I heard him on the radio in Knoxville. He bragged on himself alot, (kinda like Trump) but he was a good dentist. I got charged $12.00 a tooth back then and thought “what’s the world coming too.” But nowadays it’s $140. and beyond per tooth. How things have changed! …Ken

  • Reply
    July 21, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    There was only one toothbrush in our house when I was growing up – Mom’s. Teeth were rarely filled/repaired. We didn’t complain about toothaches until the tooth was too far gone to save. I was in college when I had all my uppers pulled and a ‘plate’ installed. The dentist pulled the last four, put the plate in and said, “Don’t do anything to them. Come back tomorrow and I’ll check them out. I went to school. My first class was speech and the professor chose that day for impromptu speeches. She called me up first and gave me the topic ‘orange is better than six’. I made a speech about the benefits of orange juice and the evils of beer. (six packs) By the time the class was over the feeling was coming back hard. I went home and to bed. I got an A for the speech.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 21, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    I had to go to an oral surgeon to have a couple of wisdom teeth removed. When I went in the nurse sat me down and gave me a shot. She said, “We’ll give the medicine time to work then I’ll be back to get you.” When she came back, she asked if the shot had taken effect. I told her I didn’t feel any different. She said “Get up and come with me.” When I got up my legs turned to jelly and she had to help me walk. By the time I got seated in the chair, I couldn’t even lift my arms. It wasn’t like I was semi-conscious, I was fully alert and aware. I just couldn’t move. The doctor was kind enough to numb me up but if he hadn’t, I couldn’t have stopped him.
    I am not sure what was in the shot but I am sure it was for the doctors comfort not mine.
    The doctor put stitches in my mouth after the procedure. When I went to get them out the nurse did it. When she was through she said, “OK, your ready!” “No I’m not. There’s another stitch. It’s holding my cheek to my gum.” She looked in my mouth, “You’re right. I wonder why he did that!” I didn’t say anything else but I was thinking “If the doctor is doing things his nurse don’t understand, I’m not sure I want to be here.”

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    July 21, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    My GGF and GF were tooth pullers for their family and community. I still have their hand forged pullers. I actually saw my GF pull a tooth for my cousin one Sunday morning on the porch. He sat him in an old straight back chair and told him to hold on which was hard to do since my cousin was three sheets to wind trying to kill the pain. He got the tooth out and all was well afterwards.
    I cherish those old pullers and often wonder just how many teeth were pulled by them. All I can say is thank the Lord for modern medicine!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    July 21, 2016 at 11:57 am

    and Anita, I had a neighbor across the valley from us whose Grandmother, when watching her baby, would consistently make it a “sugar-tit”! Despite my friends insistence that she not give the baby/toddler one! Due to the fact that the babies new teeth were coming in and stayed coated with the constant sugar in it’s mouth mixed with saliva. That definitely contributed to decay in baby teeth.
    A “sugar-tit” was used to pacify a fussy baby and not really a cure for any ailment except at the time was thought that it helped ease the fussiness when teething. Not all women used whiskey to soak the hard sugar. Mainly just a moistened rag tied up with a rock of sugar. The light whiskey dose explained the quieted baby somewhat! Very scary to me!
    I really think, even though time consuming for a busy mother, rubbing the gums with fingers or thankfully today using a cold teething ring does more good, plus just holding and rocking the baby will soothe much fussiness whatever the cause! Loving hands cures a lot of ailments!
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    anita griffith
    July 21, 2016 at 9:45 am

    My papaw born in 1885 was a carpenter,stone mason,wagon maker,gunsmith,blacksmith,and tooth puller.He forged his own tools for the job.According to the only remaining child of the family he kept a bottle of whisky in the shop.whisky in those days wasn’t looked at the same as today.
    This is off subject,but did anyone ever hear of a sugar tit?It was sugar and whisky balled up in a rag,and given to children,but I don’t remember what sickness dad said it was used for.
    E.KY LG

  • Reply
    July 21, 2016 at 9:26 am

    My dentist had to start working part-time due to back problems caused from years of bending over while working on his patients. The days he didn’t work in his office were spent at physical therapy. He told me about the day he called to make his first appointment. The gal who answered the phone couldn’t stop giggling as she took his information. After confirming his appointment, she asked if he remembered the dental work he did on Amy *****. She said, “Now it’s your turn to sit in my chair!”

  • Reply
    Carol Rosenbalm
    July 21, 2016 at 8:56 am

    Reminds me of the dentist I saw as a child. We lived close to his office which was in the county but I think the city limits didn’t want the prince of pain inside Maryville. We would walk to the dentist & I knew what was going to happen when mom & I walked in the door. It was awful drills,needles and of course the pullers. That dentist probably had a blacksmith make his.
    You would be numb & jaw throbbing as you walking back home. As of today I still remember these awful life experiences!
    Thank God with today’s technology and teeth cleanings not as much pain.
    My dentist had to deaden my last toothache pain with two shots to deaden he then had to work hard in the back of my mouth. It was bad but because of my childhood memories that pain was nothing, my dentist looked at his assistant & said this lady is tough as nails!
    He didn’t know I had very early trauma from a child which help me to take pain.
    Also liked knowing I was tough as nails!
    Carol Rodenbalm

  • Reply
    July 21, 2016 at 8:50 am

    I’m lucky to have a kind dentist now, but the memories of childhood experiences still make me break into a sweat the moment I get into the chair. Heck, I have to take my DOG to the dentist next week, and even THAT is making me feel a little wobbly!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 21, 2016 at 8:38 am

    That makes me hurt just reading about it. I hated going to the dentist when I was a child. My family told one story of me refusing to go into the dentists office once we arrived there so they picked me up to carry me in. I put one foot on each side of the door jam as the held me and fought to not enter. The adults won that battle but I won the war. I was so upset by the time they got me into the office that the dentist refused to touch me. LOL!

    • Reply
      Wanda Devers
      August 21, 2021 at 2:20 pm

      Miss Cindy I had an abscessed jaw tooth when I was about nine or so. The dentist was a horrible one but usually we could scrape up the dollar he charged. He pulled my tooth and the pain was terrible as well as the noise of the tooth coming loose. I had another abscess and had to go back to him. It took him and Daddy to prize my mouth open. I’ve always said that was why I had so much trouble with the jaw joint.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    July 21, 2016 at 8:18 am

    I hate going to the dentist so this whole topic makes me fitful. But, I remember being at the dentist back home waiting my turn when an old farmer came in with his son, who looked to be in his 20s. The receptionist asked what the problem was and the farmer said “The boy’s tooth needs fixed or pulled, one.”
    I always thought that just about covered it.

  • Reply
    eva nell mull wike, PhD
    July 21, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Tipper: This post made Jim very nervous. His father was in dental school for three years – until Jim was born – and they had to go back from Atlanta to the mountains. What you share today is about what went on with his Dad and folks who came to have a tooth pulled. Guess that whisky kept down infections!!!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 21, 2016 at 8:01 am

    My Dad pulled mine and my brother’s teeth with a plain old pair of mechanics wire pliers. Of course they were baby teeth. But I still cringe at the memory of that mouth full of metal.
    Your story reminds me of the early scenes of the John Wayne movie where the barber/dentist pulls one of his good teeth for authenticity because they were being watched.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    July 21, 2016 at 7:49 am

    I have heard so many stories thru the years about old time dentists and dentistry. I was a CDA for 25 years or more, until I totally retired. In my forties I went back to school. Art was calling! I only worked part-time occasionally thru the years.
    Nearly every old Appalachian home had a family member that had been passed down the technique of “tooth jumping”! Your research should show some reference to the way it was done. A chisel like device or a screwdriver like tool was used. It was placed between the gum, bone and molar. The device was given a good hard tap and the tooth would literally jump out of the socket. I have heard elderly patients tell their experiences of going to the tooth jumper. I imagine sometimes it would take more than one tap. OUCH! Of course pliers (forceps) were there handy if it didn’t come all the way out or break away cleanly from the fibrous connective tissue that holds the tooth in the bone.
    I have seen dentists use what is called an elevator to remove some teeth and never touch them with forceps, (pliers)! One surgeon I worked for literally would do what he called rolling out teeth without ever touching a tooth with his various shaped forceps. He was very strong and said that the pressure on the jaw was less for the patient! (?) I admit he was very quick at the deed!
    Long ago, I know the job was generally quick but imagine the pressure and pain as the tooth came loose from the bone and nerve ending without anesthetic! The most dangerous thing following extraction of teeth was a dry socket! Which can be more pain than the tooth removal and can be deadly dangerous as well as the abscessed tooth!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…A lot of powdered cloves were used back in the day to help relieve the pain from a cavity!

  • Reply
    Mary Rutherford
    July 21, 2016 at 5:39 am

    Thank the good Lord for modern dentistry! When my mom was a little girl she had a relative, Reinhold Hoffman, who had a bunch of sons – 9 or 10. One of them was away from home studying dentistry. When he would come home to visit he would come out to their farm and set up a chair on the front porch. Just about the whole community would turn out to get their teeth worked on. Mom remembers the drill running until it would get too hot and have to cool off. Lots of teeth were pulled on that porch. No Novocaine, just hang on for dear life! Although the drilling wasn’t a pleasant memory, mom fondly remembers the plaster cast teeth models her dentist cousin gave her. Every time a chicken would die she would hold a funeral with her sister and brothers and lay the chicken to rest under a perfect little tooth tombstone.

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