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  • From Porcelain to Plastic: Politics and Business in a Relocated False Teeth Company, 1880s–1950s
  • David De Vries (bio)

Why False Teeth?

“No one writing on the industrial possibilities of Palestine,” wrote Sir John Hope-Simpson in his famous 1930 commission’s report, “could by any logical course of reasoning arrive at the apparently fantastic conclusion that Palestine is a country particularly suited to the manufacture of artificial teeth.”2 Hope-Simpson, the British Vice-Chairman of the League of Nations Refugee Settlement Commission in Greece, based his amazement on the curious advance of a single firm industry—the “American Porcelain Tooth Company”—in a country that lacked the relevant raw materials for its dental production. Four years since its arrival from Philadelphia in Tel Aviv in 1926, the factory was producing close to 20,000 teeth a day and exporting most of them to almost dozens of market destinations across the world. As a politician and land settlement expert Hope-Simpson knew well the difficulties expecting an industry in moving across the globe, the systems of power and authority such an industry needed to accommodate, and the variety of local politics to which it had to adapt. Indeed, was the role false teeth making played during the Mandate period a demonstration only of the industrial build-up in which Jews engaged in conflict-ridden Palestine? Or, as will be argued below, did this highly skilled industry involve also some weighty political issues? [End Page 144]

In recent years the histories of prosthetics, physical correction and beauty have become abundant. They have been fed on fascinating mixtures of history of science and consumption, the individual body and business, and the social and ethnic networks with globalization. One implication of these histories was to emphasize the need to understand how industries and corporations change in space, how they experience moving and relocation, and how various agents impacted and were impacted by this space and its shifting boundaries. These emphases resulted in challenges to “methodological nationalism,” and in close examinations of the mechanics of transregional and transnational business networks. Moreover, if globalization happens within national contexts and specific business environments, then politics and its myriad dimensions are essential to business history. Particularly relevant is how varied levels of relations of power, of state regulation, and of imperial preferences intersected to shape the widening or contraction of the industrial geographical spaces in which firms rose and fell.3

In this re-emphasis on the inseparability of technological change and business history from politics four levels are relevant. The first is level of production. It refers to its politics of economic competition, struggle over use of patents and property rights; but also to the struggle over reputation among producers and products, and to the fact that the spatial dispersion of the marketing of products has been dependent on relations between inventors, manufacturers, marketing agents, and even states. The second level is subsumed under local politics. This is where the translation of technological advances into economic advantages and gains was depended on ethnic networks, communal structures, labor relations and municipal politics; but also on the ability to relocate and accommodate circumstances in changing localities. The wider, third level, is state and national politics, composed of customs and duties policies, spatial aspects of state-driven economic nationalism, and from above regulation of competition. The final and systemic level is where imperial and colonial politics shaped the boundaries of the industrial spaces of production, where international tensions have impacted the passage of knowledge, materials, labor power and skills, and where the rise and fall of a firm, and therefore its competitive capacities was determined. As will be demonstrated below these dimensions and levels should not be conceived as hierarchical, each subsumed in another. Rather, they were complexly tied, intersecting, and closely entangled.

The making of false teeth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which the case of the “American Porcelain Tooth Company” is [End Page 145] situated is an apt prism to examine this argument of interacting levels. Both because in explaining its evolution and change overwhelming weight has been given to dental technology and craft knowledge; and the consequent simplification of the presence of politics...


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pp. 144-181
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