The History Behind the Ritual of the Tooth Fairy
It’s a ritual nearly every parent and child is familiar with: a baby tooth falls out, the child puts that tooth under his or her pillow, and they await the visit of the tooth fairy to exchange it with a coin.
Of course, nobody actually sees the tooth fairy. The child is asleep during the visit, and one only realizes the visit has happened when the child wakes up in the morning. These visits will happen over a three-to-five year period—or the time it takes for a child to lose all of his or her baby teeth.
The tooth fairy is unique in terms of folklore. For starters, the tooth fairy belongs to a pantheon of childhood mythological beings such as Santa Claus, Jack O’Lantern, and the Easter Bunny. Children believe in them fervently and look forward to their visits. Whether it's candy, trick-or-treats, or presents, these deities of youth always seem to have something enticing to give their ardent believers. In the tooth fairy’s case, it is a monetary reward for every baby tooth that falls out.
Surprisingly, the public's knowledge about this fairy is not broad.Removing baby teeth is only part of the job. The mere act alone carries on a century-old practice to comfort children through many changes in their lives. Her presence and act—as well as her incentive—are emotional indicators that such changes are not to be feared, as well as not being a bad thing.
A Ritual and a Mouse
According to current customs, there’s a directive children are suppose to follow in order to be visited by the tooth fairy. They are supposed to place the tooth under their pillow. During the night, the tooth is retrieved by the fairy and is replaced with a coin (due to inflation, the coin has been replaced with dollars).
Since, on average, a child may have 20 baby teeth – and will lose them between the ages of 5 and 10 or ll - the visits are relatively frequent.
The tooth fairy is a modern creation. She was the byproduct of ancient customs, fairy-tales, children plays, and a literary genre. And, interestingly, her inspiration was allegedly due to a mouse.
The ritual act of retrieving and disposing baby teeth has a long history in many cultures around the world. The same can be said about fairies.
The marriage of the two would not happen until few centuries ago. According to a column from The Straight-Dope.com, it was once believed in ancient European societies that witches could use body parts such as hair, fingernails and teeth to “direct magic and curses” at an individual. Thus, finding ways to discard lost teeth was crucial and believed to be a life-saving move.
“The process differed by culture,” Dex, of The Straight-Dope, wrote, “from throwing the tooth up to the sun or over the roof, to feeding them to an animal (usually a mouse).”
Although not proven, it is believed that the “fairy mouse” (as it came to be known) first appeared in a fairy tale called La Bonne Petite Souris.
The mouse was the most prevalent animal in many of these customs. Thus, parents in 18th Century France began telling children that the lost baby tooth would be snatched up by a magical mouse.
Although not proven, it is believed that the “fairy mouse” (as it came to be known) first appeared in a fairy tale called La Bonne Petite Souris. According to The Straight-Dope article, the story was about a fairy who changed into a mouse, hid under the pillow of a king, and came out in the middle the night to knock out his teeth.
The Modern Tooth Fairy
Fairy mouse was too mean for kids to believe in. Thus, a new figure would take over in the 20th Century. The tooth fairy would emerge in the early 1900s. This time, she was a good fairy who brought gifts rather than mishap.
This version of the fairy was not the result of folklore, either. Her “birth” can be traced to the three-act play The Tooth Fairy, written by Esther Watkins Arnold. The play was intended for children and was published in 1927.
In 1949, Lee Rogow wrote the children fantasy “The Tooth Fairy”. The popularity of this particular story would lead to more books, cartoons, comics, and jokes being published on this subject throughout the 1950s.
Eventually, the mass-marketing culture of America caught up with the fairy, turning her into a spokesperson for a variety of items, such toothbrushes, logos for dental offices, or websites specializing in dental care. She has also become a popular caricature for dolls, toys, pillows, and other items not usually associated with dental hygiene.
Her (or his) Identity
Despite her popularity, the tooth fairy’s identity, as well as her reason for collecting teeth is still murky. In fact, her ambiguity has left her open to numerous interpretations. Even her gender hasn’t been set as was the case with The Santa Clause Trilogy, in which the tooth fairy was depicted as a middle-age man in tutus and fairy wings. Even Larry the Cable Guy has donned the wings and tutu when he played the deity in Tooth Fairy 2.
By far, the most popular male Tooth Fairy was played by former professional wrestler turned actor, Dwayne Johnson (Better known as The Rock) for the first installment of the Tooth Fairy franchise.
This makes her -- or him -- unique, when compared to other mythological beings that represent rites-of-passages, rituals, or holiday. Santa is pretty much set; everybody has an idea what he looks like. The same is true for Cupid, the Easter Bunny, Jack O’Lantern, or the St. Patrick Day Leprechaun.
The ambiguity has given several writers license to add to the evolving mythos. One current best-selling writer, Terry Pratchett, attempted to clarify the mystery behind her intention for retrieving the teeth. In the story “Hogfather”, she collects, labels and displays them in a castle. Also, she is depicted as carrying pliers to use in forced tooth extraction from a child’s mouth, just in case she is not reaching her “tooth” quota.
The tooth fairy is, in many respects, a personification of a critical time in early childhood.
Despite the variance in descriptions, some details appear to be consistent. For the most part, she is a very small woman. Also, she wears a gown, carries a wand, has wings, and visits in the middle of the night when the child is sound asleep.
As mentioned, the monetary incentive she leaves has gone up. Rosemary Wells, a self-described “tooth fairy expert” wrote in her book, American Folklore that rate of exchange, compared with consumer price index between 1900 and 1980 actually kept up with inflation.
Why the Tooth?
The tooth fairy is, in many respects, a personification of a critical time in early childhood. She is an entity meant to ease this scary moment in many children and to honor it as a rite-of-passage.
Often the first physical sign of maturity toward a child's teen years are the loss and replacement of the baby teeth. Baby teeth are temporary, whereas the set that comes in its place become their permanent ones.
It doesn't happen at once and it's not a clean transition. And, in many cases, it can cause temporary pain and cause bleeding. The ritual created for the tooth fairy seemingly makes an unpleasant transition in life much more acceptable. Notably, most children look forward to losing their teeth due to the monetary rewards it entails.
Her life span as a mythological being is short-lived. Many children will stop believing in her after their seventh or eighth birthday. However, she is still a popular character in numerous books, movies, TV and advertisement. She’s a mythological being for now and into the future.
© 2017 Dean Traylor