If you’ve grown up in the United States or one of the Anglicized countries, you’re no doubt familiar with the Tooth Fairy. The story goes that when a child loses a baby tooth, the child should put the tooth under the pillow and a magical being called the Tooth Fairy will collect the tooth and leave money behind. What may surprise you is that the Tooth Fairy isn’t that old of a myth and is a conglomeration of various traditions.
Young Tooth Fairy
Apparently the Tooth Fairy didn’t appear in literature until around 1927. Written as a short children’s play by Esther Watkins Arnold with the same name, this Tooth Fairy shelled out cash for teeth. Later, a book published in 1949 by Lee Rogow called The Tooth Fairy also described the magically fairy with a big wallet and a penchant for primary teeth. Before that, the Tooth Fairy origins are murky at best.
The Tooth Mouse
Before the Tooth Fairy, there were other critters and customs associated with teeth. In the 1700s the concept of the Tooth Mouse became popular along with a 1697 French story written by Madame d’Aulnoy called The Good Little Mouse. The story is about a heroic mouse who changes into a fairy, hides under an evil king’s pillow, and knocks the king’s teeth out, thus defeating him. French children left their baby teeth for this mouse in exchange for money or presents.
Likewise, the Spanish also had a tooth mouse who gave money or presents in exchange for teeth. This mouse, known as El Ratón Perez, is still known throughout Hispanic countries.
How mice and rats got associated with teeth is interesting. Back in medieval times, it was believed that you had to dispose of teeth properly or something bad could happen such as a witch getting hold of your teeth and thus getting control over you. In order to prevent this, people burned their children’s teeth or fed the teeth to rodents. The thought was that since rodents had strong teeth if a rodent ate the child’s tooth, the child would have strong teeth as well. This sympathetic magic was believed in by many people during this time. One can only guess that this belief eventually made the leap to the Tooth Mouse.
In Scandinavian countries, children who lost their teeth were given a tann-fé or tooth fee. The tooth was put on a necklace and worn into battle like a talisman. When the Vikings spread their culture with their conquests, no doubt the tooth fee followed them. Some scholars believe that this is the first money for teeth practice and may have linked baby teeth and monetary gifts.
Why Does the Tooth Fairy Exist?
One may wonder why the Tooth Fairy exists at all or why she is still popular now. It is no doubt a comfort to those children who lose their teeth who might otherwise find the situation frightening or disturbing in some way. Losing one’s baby teeth or primary teeth is the first step toward adulthood and by marking it with something benevolent like the Tooth Fairy can make it less frightening. It’s also a good way of teaching children about the importance of their teeth and oral health.