While You Were Sleeping: The Tale of the Tooth Fairy
As the legend goes, when a child loses a baby tooth, and then places it under their pillow, a sprite known as the “Tooth Fairy” comes along and swaps out that tooth for money while the child sleeps. As many children will tell you, this has happened to them. They put a fallen-out tooth under their pillow, go to sleep, and in the morning when they wake up they find money where they left the tooth. If you’re curious as to how this phenomenon came about, you’re come to the right place. We’ve done some investigative journalism to get to the root of the story!
Evidently, the tradition of disposing of children’s lost baby teeth goes way back to ancient cultures. In Medieval England superstition led people to burn the lost teeth. They were afraid that in the afterlife the person would go in search of those teeth if the teeth were still around somewhere. Others believed that if a witch ever got a hold of a tooth she would have power over the person it had belonged to. Elsewhere, children were taught to feed their teeth to animals in order to dispose of them. There were various other ways to get rid of the teeth, including throwing them into a fire, throwing them up to the sun or the sky, or hiding them in a tree. Some thought that burying their children’s baby teeth in the garden would help the permanent teeth to grow in.
Money in exchange for teeth started in Northern Europe with the tradition of “tand-fe” or “tooth fee,” paid to the child when they lost their first tooth. In the Norse culture, children’s teeth were said to bring good luck in battle, so the Vikings often paid children for their teeth. These Scandinavian warriors would string the teeth into a necklace to wear when fighting.
The legend of a mouse who would sneak into a child’s room at night to trade teeth for money became popular in Russia, Mexico, and many other countries. In Italy today, a little mouse named Topolino stands in for the Tooth Fairy. In Spain the mouse’s name is Raton Perez. In France and Belgium the same character is called “la petite souris” or “the little mouse.” The tale was passed down orally throughout the years starting as early as the 1800s. It is this mouse story that many scholars believe to be the origin of what we now know as the Tooth Fairy.
The Tooth Fairy herself is thought to be a very American tradition. In 1908 The Chicago Daily Tribune ran a “Household Hints” column by Lillian Brown. This is the author’s advice to parents: “Many a refractory child will allow a loose tooth to be removed if he knows about the Tooth Fairy. If he takes his little tooth and puts it under the pillow when he goes to bed the Tooth Fairy will come in the night and take it away, and in its place will leave some little gift. It is a nice plan for mothers to visit the 5-cent counter and lay in a supply of articles to be used on such occasions.”
Sometime around 1927 Esther Watkins Arnold wrote a short play for children that became the Tooth Fairy’s first appearance in a book. Then with the popularity of Disney’s cartoons for children, imaginations were kindled and the Tooth Fairy became a fixture in society. She is often portrayed as very “Tinkerbell”-like – small and delicate, with wings and a wand. This explains how she can get in and out of houses, and under pillows without being detected. It also explains how she can magically carry a coin or a tooth!
Now that we are out of the dark ages, what purpose does the Tooth Fairy serve? She actually plays an important role in our family systems. As Lillian Brown writes, believing that the Tooth Fairy will be coming may help alleviate a child’s fears about going to the dentist when a tooth needs to be pulled. They may have some discomfort for a bit, but there’s a happy ending with a nice reward in the morning. At the age when a child loses their “baby” teeth, having a little bit of money to call their own can also help with the transition into adulthood. Money is a symbol of responsibility, and a marker to allow a child to experience some responsibility.
The Tooth Fairy also helps to provide comfort to the parents during this transition time. Their child may be losing teeth, but the fantasy of the Tooth Fairy story keeps them reassured that it’s not all going too fast, that their child is still very much a child.
Today the Tooth Fairy is quite big business as well! In 2011 the Royal Canadian Mint started selling special coin sets featuring the Tooth Fairy. They also made Tooth Fairy quarters that were issued in 2011 and 2012. In gift shops and online you’ll find custom-made pillows with pockets for the lost-tooth occasion, little pewter boxes to keep teeth in, and several books and cartoons to explain the story. The cost of teeth that the Tooth Fairy pays for teeth has gone up with inflation as well. While you and I might have found some coins under the pillow, according to a survey by VISA, the current average cost of a tooth is currently about $3.70. Some parents report that the tooth fairy pays even more for molars.
The Tooth Fairy may just be helping all of us to sleep better at night.
Lissa Coffey is a spokesperson for the Better Sleep Council, and the founder of CoffeyTalk.com. A lifestyle and wellness expert, she’s written several books and been featured on Today, Good Morning America, and several other national and local television shows.