By: Dr. Scott R. Harden
We all know the story — the Tooth Fairy comes when a child has lost a tooth, commonly in the middle of the night. The tooth is left under their pillow, so that the tooth fairy can take it and exchange it for a treat or money, left under the pillow in place of the tooth.
There are some unanswered questions though. How much for the first tooth? How much for the last tooth, especially since the child figured out the fable by then? My personal favorite – when a child asks me if the Tooth Fairy visits when the dentist extracts a “baby” tooth? Where and when did all this Tooth Fairy business start?
Research shows that many ancient superstitions lead to stories that influenced the modern tradition we know today as the Tooth Fairy.
A child normally has twenty baby teeth and starts losing them at around age 5 or 6. The common ancient belief held by many cultures was based upon primitive superstition that witches used pieces of your body, such as hair and fingernail clippings, to direct magic and curses at you, so proper disposal of teeth was a serious business. The process differed by culture, from throwing the tooth up to the sun or over the roof, to feeding them to an animal (usually a mouse). The tooth could be buried, hidden, swallowed, or burned (sometimes after salting).
It was further held that if an animal eats a lost baby tooth, the new teeth coming in would resemble that animal, such as a dog’s tooth or pig’s tooth. Letting the tooth be eaten by mice or rats will ensure that the child grows strong, sharp teeth (such folk rituals were recorded as late as 1929). People carried around an animal’s tooth as a good luck charm – shark’s teeth are worn on strings to this day.
So we have long traditions about the importance of proper tooth disposal, and of course equally ancient traditions about fairies. But how did the two merge together? There’s a tradition from 18th century France of a “tooth mouse,” likely based on a fairy tale, La Bonne Petite Souris, in which a fairy changes into a mouse (or perhaps the other way around) to help the good queen defeat the evil king. The mouse hides under a pillow to taunt the king, and punishes him by knocking out all his teeth. Many of the pieces of the Tooth Fairy puzzle are in this story, so perhaps this was the origin of the Tooth Fairy.
The Tooth Fairy as we now know her didn’t make an appearance until the early 1900s, as a generalized “good fairy” with a professional specialization. The Tooth Fairy grew slowly in popularity over the next few decades. The Tooth Fairy, a three-act playlet for children by Esther Watkins Arnold, was published in 1927. Lee Rogow’s story “The Tooth Fairy” appeared in 1949 and seems to be the first children’s story written about the Tooth Fairy. She became widely popular from the 1950s onward, with a veritable eruption of children’s books, cartoons, jokes, etc., including more focus on children’s dental hygiene. Parents cheerfully bought into the idea and the Tooth Fairy became part of family life. The 1980s saw the commercialization and merchandising of the Tooth Fairy, with special pillows, dolls, banks, etc.
The Tooth Fairy doesn’t have the same popularity as Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer or the Easter Bunny, and is further not encumbered by religious significance or holiday affiliation. Therefore, the Tooth Fairy can be accepted by everyone.
Tooth fairy economics have been closely studied. Rosemary Wells, acknowledged as the world’s leading tooth fairy authority, tracked the exchange rate for teeth from 1900 to 1980 against the consumer price index, and found that the Tooth Fairy kept up with inflation. Another survey in the mid 1990s claimed that the going rate had increased to nearly two bucks from a dime 25 years previously.
Writing in American Folklore, Ms. Wells noted the significance of rites of passage for children. Most children start losing their baby teeth around age 5 or 6, coincidentally the time when they’re starting school. Shedding teeth and can be annoying and frightening but is also a sign of growing up. Ms. Wells suggests that giving a child a treat for the lost tooth is a way of softening the scariness surrounding the process.
Though the last baby teeth usually aren’t lost till age 10 or 11, most children no longer believe by 7 or 8. Parents frequently play out the game anyway and their kids fully expect them to – there’s money at stake.
Interestingly enough the Tooth Fairy is one of America’s “original” fables, and parents in many other countries are beginning to now share this tale with their children.
Belief in the Tooth Fairy is generally short-lived. Of course the curious children wanted to know what happened to their small teeth. And since children love to hear stories, their parents explained to them who was actually removing their teeth and leaving the treat in its place. The Tooth Fairy was born. All children grew to love this rite of passage, and the coming of the Tooth Fairy.