The story is familiar to every child in America: after a baby tooth falls out, you place it under your pillow so the Tooth Fairy will exchange your outgrown molar, incisor, or bicuspid with cold, hard cash. But where did this Tooth Fairy tale originate? Why did the practice of leaving money under the child’s pillow develop? Do other cultures observe similar myths? In honor of National Tooth Fairy Day (February 28th), the dental professionals at Infinite Dental Wellness went searching for the origins and reasons behind one of America’s most enduring and beloved fictional characters.
The Origins of the Tooth Fairy
The Myth Is Born – Europe and Scandinavia
Although the exact origins of the Tooth Fairy myth are murky, early writings point to Medieval Europe as the birthplace of the modern-day Tooth Fairy. Superstitions about spells and mythical creatures were prevalent during this time, and many believed that burning a person’s baby teeth would prevent them from hardships in the afterlife. Burning baby teeth was also the best way to ward away the spells of witches who, according to superstition, could control a person’s actions if they possessed any part of their body, including a tooth. Some even believed that by feeding a lost baby tooth to a mouse, a dog, or a pig – all animals with notoriously strong teeth – the person’s replacement (adult) tooth would develop the same characteristics as the teeth of that animal.
As the superstitions surrounding baby teeth evolved and changed, so did the customs. The practice of giving children money in exchange for their teeth, as is now the tradition, was first documented in 13th Century Norse culture – Vikings would offer children a tand-fé (literally, a “tooth fee”) for their lost baby teeth, then tie the newly-acquired dental talisman around their necks and wear the teeth into battle. Articles belonging to children were believed to bring good luck on the battlefield, and the Nordic warriors considered (not wrongly) the lost baby tooth to be a possession of the child.
The French Treatment of the Tooth Fairy: La Bonne Petite Souris (The Little Good Mouse)
As the Middle Ages drew to a close in the 15th and 16th centuries, the popularity of “fairy tales” surged in European literature and folklore. Stories like Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream stoked the cultural belief that mythical beings existed among us, and in the late 17th Century, French writer Madame d’Aulnoy penned La Bonne Petite Souris (“The Little Good Mouse”) about a fairy that transforms into a mouse. Because the story includes many of the traditions we now associate with the modern-day Tooth Fairy, including the fairy/mouse knocking out the evil king’s teeth and hiding under his pillow to torment him, many believe La Bonne Petite Souris to be the true antecedent of the Tooth Fairy myth.
The Spanish Tooth Fairy – Ratón Pérez (Perez the Mouse)
The figure of Ratón Pérez (or “Pérez the Mouse,” in English) first appeared in Madrid, Spain in the late 19th Century, though this myth – which features a mouse named Pérez sneaking into a child’s room and exchanging the child’s lost baby tooth for a coin – likely drew on a number of pre-existing folklore beliefs and stories, including d’Aulnoy’s La Bonne Petite Souris and the Medieval notion that giving baby teeth to rats will encourage strong, rat-like teeth. Today, Ratón Pérez is still an extremely well-known figure in Spanish and Hispanic cultures, though he goes by different names in different countries: he is known as “Ratoncito Pérez” in the majority of Mexico, “el Ratón de los Dientes” in Peru and Chile, and “El Ratón Pérez” in Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Colombia.
Other Tooth Fairy Variations and Tooth-Related Superstitions
Most cultures have superstitions about lost baby teeth, and in fact, many of these practices reflect the same origins as the modern-day American Tooth Fairy myth. Some of the more interesting superstitions are:
- In Sweden, baby teeth are not placed under the child’s pillow, but are instead submersed in a glass of water overnight. In the morning, the teeth have been mysteriously replaced with coins.
- In China, a child must bury the baby tooth under the floorboards if it came from the upper jaw, and throw it on the roof of their house if it came from the lower jaw. While doing this, children are encouraged to make a wish that their tooth be replaced by the tooth of a mouse.
- Similarly, in Japan, upper teeth are thrown straight down to the ground and lower teeth thrown straight up into the air. Superstition dictates that this practice will help the child’s new teeth grow straight.
- In Middle Eastern cultures like Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, baby tooth are often thrown into the sky in the direction of the sun.
- In Finnish folklore, the (or “tooth troll”) was a spirit that caused tooth pain. Today, the Hammaspeikko represents plaque and cavities, and like the Cavity Creeps from those terrible 1980’s Crest commercials (watch below!), the Hammaspeikko can be defeated or scared away with proper dental hygiene.
The Tooth Fairy In America
Creating A Cultural Icon
Though the traditions that contributed to our present-day conception of the Tooth Fairy – the Norse tradition of paying children for their teeth (which later evolved into mice giving children money for their lost baby teeth) and the popular European fairy culture – are hundreds of years old, the beloved dental sprite didn’t officially come to America until the early 20th Century. In 1927, Esther Watkins Arnold wrote a three-act children’s play named The Tooth Fairy which, by most accounts, is the first time the moniker was ever used. Twenty years later, after Lee Rogow published “The Tooth Fairy” in 1949 and Walt Disney’s films “Cinderella” and “Pinocchio” had thoroughly revived Americans’ love of benevolent, wish-granting fairies, the Tooth Fairy became firmly cemented as a cultural staple.
Why The Tooth Fairy And Other Tooth-Related Myths Exist
Losing a seemingly-permanent part of one’s anatomy can be a terrifying experience for anyone, and small children are no exception. Researchers today believe that the tooth fairy myth was created to help children overcome the trauma and fear associated with losing teeth, and the use of a monetary reward is symbolic of a child’s first steps toward adulthood.