Origins: The Tooth Fairy
The Tooth Fairy, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, is a legendary figure solely (or at least primarily) believed in by children. Largely a phenomenon of the Western World, the Tooth Fairy is well known for visiting children who have lost their teeth and replacing the missing tooth with a coin – the value of that coin varying by location and averaging around £1 in the UK and $5 in America.
Though the Tooth Fairy is well known, she does not quite have the popularity of her two compatriots, and her origins are very murky – in fact, there is no true consensus on where precisely the legend of the Tooth Fairy came from. Instead, there are a number of tooth related traditions and tales thought to have contributed to the legend.
Around the world, there are a great number of small rituals and superstitions that revolve around a child’s lost tooth. One British superstition held that a child’s baby teeth should be buried in the garden to ensure the new tooth would grow in straight and strong – this was also thought to keep the tooth away from witches, who could use them to magically cause injury or illness to the child. Other ways to keep your baby tooth safe from witches involved swallowing or burning the tooth. On the other side of the world, according to an Indonesian superstition, the child should throw the tooth over their shoulder, attempting to get it over the roof of their house. If their throw is straight, their tooth will be too. If their throw is crooked, or the tooth doesn’t make it all the way over their roof, the tooth will grow in crooked. A Nigerian version of this superstition also involved throwing the tooth. The child holds a number of stones in one hand, and the tooth in the other, shouting that they want their tooth back before throwing both handfuls in the air and running off as fast as they can.
There are also a number of legends and traditions which, like the Tooth Fairy, involve the child getting a reward for their missing tooth. One saw the child receiving a reward upon losing their sixth tooth, which was seen a sign of their growth. There is also a Scandinavian tradition known as tand-fe (tooth fee), in which a child is given a reward for losing their first tooth. This tradition appeared in ‘The Poetic Edda’, one of the most iconic accountings of Norse legends. One of the epic poems in the collection accounts that the god Freyr was gifted the realm of the elves – Álfheimr – as a tand-fe.
One story which is popularly attributed to the existence of the Tooth Fairy is a French tale, ‘La Bonne Petite Souris,’ or the good little mouse. The story tells of an evil king who went to war against a neighbouring kingdom.
The evil king killed the neighbouring good king, and took the man’s pregnant queen as a hostage, declaring that if the queen had a daughter, she would be married to his son. If the queen had a son, however, both the queen and her child would be killed. During her imprisonment, the queen befriended a mouse in her cell, sharing her meagre meals with it, and keeping the mouse from harm. This mouse was later revealed to be a fairy in a disguise. She saved the queen and the princess and punished the evil king – hiding beneath his pillow and stealing his teeth while he slept. The French equivalent to the Tooth Fairy is also a mouse, la petite souris, who – like the Tooth Fairy – brings a coin in exchange for a tooth.
Though the tradition will have begun earlier, The Tooth Fairy herself is said to appeared in print in 1908, as part of an article published by the Chicago Daily Tribune. Her fame grew, and became popularised due to a play produced nineteen years later, in 1927. The play, ‘The Tooth Fairy: Three-Act Playlet for Children’ featured the titular fairy flying through children’s windows and trading the tooth beneath their pillow for money.
Despite her popularity however, the Tooth Fairy does not really have one iconic image like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny do – a fat, bearded man in a red suit, and a giant, anthropomorphised rabbit, respectively. While the Tooth Fairy is known to be a ‘fairy’ she is depicted as many different fey creatures. Whether she is tall or small, winged or not, one person or a number of tooth collecting fairies is very much up to personal interpretation, and while the Tooth Fairy has now appeared in a number of films and books, these adaptions vary dramatically –
In the UK, February 28th is known as national Tooth Fairy Day, and is a time (likely suggested by dentists) to encourage children and their parents to think about good oral hygiene – in particular in relation to a child’s baby teeth.