Most children and parents are accustomed to the age-old tale of the Tooth Fairy – the tiny little fairy that collects baby teeth from under children’s’ pillows in exchange for currency, equal to the value of the tooth. Somehow, this tradition has wound up in households around the world, but we do not seem to recognize where the Tooth Fairy’s story began, and surprisingly enough, it is only the Western world that practices the baby-tooth-for-money tradition. Around the world, many other cultures have their own version of the Tooth Fairy, and with that, their own traditions.
The earliest form of baby tooth traditions began in some of the earliest recordings of human time. B. R. Townend, in 1960, compiled some of these rituals:
- The tooth was thrown into the sun
- The tooth was thrown into the fire
- The tooth was thrown between the legs of the child
- The tooth was thrown onto or over the roof of the house, often with an invocation to some animal or individual
- The tooth was placed in a mouse hole near the stove or hearth, or offered to some other animal
- The tooth was buried
- The tooth was hidden where animals could not get it
- The tooth was placed in a tree or on a wall
- The tooth was swallowed by the mother, child, or an animal
These rituals of offering up baby tooth to a strong-toothed animal like a rodent was believed to grant the child teeth as strong as a rodent in the future. This was practiced across Europe, Russia, New Zealand, and even Mexico before the 1900’s. This led to the tradition of idolizing not a fairy, but a mouse. In Spain, the tooth-mouse is called, Ratóncito Pérez, and in France referred to as, La Petite Souris. In Madrid, a museum was built surrounding the character of Ratóncito Pérez (which you can view here: http://www.casamuseoratonperez.es/).
So, if the “Tooth Fairy” was actually a “Tooth Mouse” where on Earth did the fairy aspect come from? The European “good fairy” was a new concept in the 1900’s and started being incorporated into children’s’ movies and books; thus these two ideas merged to form the Tooth Fairy, who quite frankly was much more inviting than the Tooth Mouse. Her first appearance was in a play written by Esther Watkins Arnold in 1927.
Okay, so now we know where this character came from, and some of the rituals contributing to the tradition we all know, but how did monetary compensation get involved? Many scholars believe that losing a baby tooth and growing an adult one is one of life’s first milestones into adulthood and money can symbolize some of the responsibilities, choices, and benefits of becoming an adult (in which Cindy Dell Clark mentions in her book “Flights of Fancy, Leaps, of Faith,” suggests is an American contribution to this tradition).
The traditions of the Tooth Fairy do not just stop in Europe and North America. In Asia, when children lose their teeth, instead of placing it under their pillows at night, they throw them. According to which jaw you lost your tooth from, you would throw your tooth in the opposite direction – example, if you lost your tooth from your lower jaw, you would throw your tooth onto a rooftop. Along with this, children will wish for the teeth of a rodent in its place – again, to acquire big and strong teeth. It is also seen that in central Asia, children put their fallen teeth in animal fat and feed it to a dog (to obtain strong teeth like a dog) or bury them under trees, so their roots will be as rigid as a tree. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, children also throw their teeth, but solely to the sky (this tradition dates to the 13th Century). In South Africa, they follow the same American tradition, but instead of using a pillow, they place their baby teeth in a slipper.
Most of this Tooth Fairy hunting can be attributed to Rosemary Wells from Northwestern University Dental School, who accredited herself as the Tooth Fairy consultant. She has uncovered a lot of the history behind the world’s traditions surrounding the Tooth Fairy.