Sozodont was a popular brand of oral hygiene product from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, according to American Druggist, 1889. Created in 1859 by druggist Roswell van Buskirk (1824–1902) of New Jersey, it derived its name from the Greek sozo, meaning “to save”, and dontia, meaning “teeth”. Sozodont was later manufactured by the firm Hall & Ruckel of New York, New York, and London, England. Sozodont fell out of favor with consumers in the early twentieth century amid concerns about negative side effects of its usage.
According to an obituary published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, 1902, “Mr Van Buskirk was born in Peekskill NY. When 21 years of age he went to Newark, establishing a drug business at the northwest corner of Broad and Market streets, the store now occupied by Charles Holzhauer. For about 20 years Mr Van Buskirk continued in business, and then sold out to Mr Holzhauer, after accumulating considerable money. His name is very widely known in connection with his discovery of Sozodont.”
According to Wikipedia, “Known as Van Buskirk’s Fragrant Sozodont, or Van Buskirk’s Fragrant and Antiseptic Sozodont, the product was dispensed from a glass bottle through a metal sprinkler and, as illustrated advertisements show, could be applied to the teeth using a toothbrush. The product made strong use of advertising as a marketing tool and by the late nineteenth century was an established household word. According to an 1889 issue of the journal American Druggist, Sozodont was made from a liquid and powder mixture. The powder contained orris root, carbonate of calcium, and magnesia. The liquid contained castile soap (soap made exclusively from vegetable oil), glycerin, sizeable portions of water and alcohol, and, for flavoring, a small quantity of oil of peppermint, clover, cinnamon, and star anise, as well as, for coloring, cochineal (a dye made from an insect of the same name).
“Its manufacturers claimed that Sozodont would clean and preserve the teeth and harden the gums, as well as “impart a delightfully refreshing taste and feeling to the mouth.” In addition, claimed promotional material, “it prevents the accumulation of tartar on the teeth and arrests the progress of decay.” Furthermore, cartons of the product maintained that, in addition to the above, Sozodont was “Recommended by many of the most prominent physicians, chemists [i.e., pharmacists], dentists, and scientific gentlemen of all sections of the country.”
“Only a year after the discovery of X-rays in 1895, Sozodont used the scientific breakthrough to bolster its sales, noting in an advertisement, “Dr. Van Buskirk applies the Röntgen rays [X-rays] in his dental practice and find that those habitually using Sozodont have perfect teeth, hard gums, and sweet breath.”
“Sozodont fell out of favor with consumers in the early twentieth century amid concerns about side effects of its usage. As early as 1880, however, one dentist complained, ‘I will testify to what is so well known to most dentists, viz., that it [Sozodont] destroys the color of the teeth, turning them to a decidedly dark-yellow.’ [The Missouri Dental Journal, Volume 12, 1880]”
“At the turn of the 20th century, another dentist echoed this complaint, stating that “The liquid of Sozodont . . . is far too alkaline for general use, and would in time destroy the enamel of the teeth and make them yellow.”
A Sozodont bottle is in the collection of the National Museum of American History, with its original packaging. “The indications or uses for this product as provided by the manufacturer are:Hardens the Gums, and Imparts a Delightfully Refreshing Feeling to the Mouth. It Prevents the Accumulation of Tartar and Scurf on the teethand assists in arresting the progress of decay.”
Several bottles of Sozodont was recovered from the sunken remains of the SS Republic. “The SS Republic was a Civil War-era sidewheel steamship that sank during a hurricane in October 1865 while en route from New York to New Orleans with a cargo meant to help rebuild the city after the Civil War. The Republic was discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2003 at a depth of nearly 1700 feet. Before the archaeological excavation began, a photomosaic of the shipwreck site (using thousands of digital pictures) created a permanent record of the site as it looked when discovered. During the archaeological excavation, 262 dives were completed with the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) ZEUS, logging 3500 hours of bottom time. Over 51,000 U.S. gold and silver coins were recovered from the Republic wreck site, as well as over 14,000 artifacts – a fascinating assortment of 19th century goods in use during the Civil War years.”
According to historian Mark Edward Lender, van Buskirk was well known among local politicians in New Jersey, at times giving them his endorsement, and Sozodont received product endorsements from them in return.
Van Buskirk even got his product advertisement painted on a covered bridge in New Jersey.