The most exciting part about losing your teeth as a child is that sweet dollar bill that appears under the pillow or on the nightstand the next day. To offer up a dead tooth and receive a tangible amount of money for it in return is actually kind of strange. And yet, many parents use it as a way to soften the blow of children losing teeth.
But where did this tooth fairy come from?
The answer may surprise you.
The Folkloric Origins of the Tooth Fairy
Losing teeth is not a new phenomenon. Human beings have been losing their chompers for centuries. And yet, it has mostly been in the 20th and 21st century that kids have known about the mysterious little fairy that collects teeth or uses them to build her house or whatever it is that she does. Unlike the legends of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, the origins of the Tooth Fairy did not really spike that much curiosity until about the 1990s. And yet, it was somehow just part of the culture.
The mystery of the Tooth Fairy begins, one might say, in Europe. According to Forbes, there was an old British custom of giving “fairy coins” to servant girls while they slept. There’s an old Venetian version of a character of some kind that gives coins to kids that have lost a tooth. An old Irish tradition that suggests leaving an old tooth can fool these little fairy changelings that rummage around throughout the night.
All of these are little pieces of legends that folklorists who delve deeply into the matter have seen as possible precursors for what became the American myth of the tooth fairy. One similar European tale was an 18th-century French story called La Bonne Petite Souris.
The French Fairy-Mouse
The story of the La Bonne Petite Souris begins with a queen that is unjustly imprisoned by the king. The queen seeks the help of a trusted mouse. Little did the queen know that this mighty mouse was a fairy in disguise that very quickly knocked out the king’s teeth. The fairy-mouse hides the teeth under the pillow and then proceeds to have the king assassinated. Yes, this was a mighty mouse indeed.
This story was released as a children’s illustrated book and took off in the English-speaking world. After WWII, the story seemed to really take off.
From a French Story to an American National Myth
So how did this largely ubiquitous practice of receiving money for lost teeth become so ubiquitous and traditional? Speculation suggests that after World War II, economic prosperity gave people the luxury to part with hard-earned dollars to give to children. This would not be happening during the Great Depression. Others suggest that it inadvertently slid into place as a tradition that families could engage in to mark the rite of passage into early adulthood.
Teaching Kids About Money and the Free Market
Some people might call this a bit of a stretch, but others suggest that exchanging valuables for money is teaching kids a little something about the real world. That is, things cost money and money takes work. After all, the value of teeth has increased with inflation. Between 1900 and 1975, kids were lucky to get a few cents for their pearly whites, but today the rate is as high as $5 dollars!
Previous Rituals Surrounding the Disposal of Baby Teeth
Of course, European and American cultures are not the only ones that have engaged in unique rituals surrounding the loss of teeth. In a 1991 essay, a tooth fairy enthusiast wrote some of the worldwide traditions:
- Throwing the baby tooth into the sun
- Throwing the baby tooth into the fire
- Hurled over the roof of a hose while invoking an animal or some kind of character
- Burying the tooth
- Hiding the tooth
- Placing the tooth on a true or hiding it in between the walls
- Swallowing the tooth
Another well-known practice—familiar to many here in the Southwest because of our proximity to Mexico— is offering the tooth to a mouse or rat. The idea is that by sacrificing the tooth to the rat, the child’s adult teeth will get as strong as the rodent’s. Teeth were also offered to other strong-tooth animals including beavers and dogs.
However, the mouse has remained the main animal representative of tooth collection.
So as Salon reports it, the American myth was a fusion between two preexisting legends and children’s tales: the sneaky rodent that comes into children’s rooms and leaves cash for teeth and the myth of the fairy. Disney’s Cinderella and Pinocchio were released around the time that the fairy stories really took off. So we can all thank Tinkerbell and the Blue Fairy.
Don’t Trust the Mouse, Trust Pediatric Dentistry with a Track Record
So while participating in the myth of the tooth fairy or fairy mouse can make your child happy and excited about losing teeth, it can also be a good opportunity to talk to your kids about tooth hygiene and health. Get them excited about brushing their teeth and taking care of those little chompers.
Here at Lee Trevino Dental, we take care of your child’s teeth. Pediatric dentistry means ensuring kids are cavity-free and have good oral health.
Want to learn more about our pediatric dentistry services? Call Lee Trevino Dental today.