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About the Tooth Fairy

Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. . .

Tooth Fairy? It's kind of a weird idea. Where did it come from?

Go back to the Middle Ages. Without modern medicine, many women died in childbirth. What's more, many babies died even before they were one year old. How would you protect a baby back then? You had to worry about hunger and disease, and one more thing—witches.

Everyone knew witches could take things like your hair, fingernails, and teeth and use them to make spells against you. Teeth were special. So different cultures got rid of baby teeth in superstitious ways. Sometimes they were buried or burned to keep them safe.

Another custom was to feed the baby teeth to rats and mice because those animals had strong teeth, and people hoped that the child would have stronger teeth if they did that. (Without modern dentistry, most people's teeth rotted earlier in life than they do today, so strong teeth were a big deal.)

In many Asian cultures, the baby tooth was thrown up onto the roof or put under the floor for the mice, again with a wish that the child's teeth would become strong and last a long time like those of mice. The Japanese threw them straight up or down with a wish that the teeth would grow in straight.

In some Middle Eastern countries people threw the teeth up into the sky as an offering to the sun or to Allah. Then there were the Vikings, who used to buy baby teeth and wear necklaces of them into battle, believing the teeth would give them magical protection.

A few stories told about teeth later in history may have helped lead to the idea of a tooth fairy—or in other countries, to the Tooth Mouse. A French story written by a famous storyteller named Madame d'Aulnoy in 1697 tells of a heroic mouse that hides under the pillow of an evil king and knocks out all his teeth. In Spain Luis Coloma told the story of "El Ratón Perez" (Perez the Mouse) in 1894 because the little boy king, Alfonso XIII, had lost a tooth. The Tooth Fairy is called the Ratoncito Perez (Perez the Little Mouse) in Spanish-speaking countries to this day.

But the idea for the American version of the Tooth Fairy apparently came from a play written in 1927 by Esther Watkins Arnold called The Tooth Fairy and then a short story by Lee Rogow of the same name, published in Collier's magazine in 1949.

Rogow's story tells about parents trying to raise their daughter Cynthia scientifically. Then one day she comes home from kindergarten and tells them she has lost a tooth. Her friend Sandra found ten cents under her pillow the morning after leaving a tooth there, so Cynthia expects the same thing. Her reasonable parents are quick to reassure her there's no such thing as a tooth fairy. But Cynthia gets a little teary, and the next morning she finds two dimes under her pillow, presumably one snuck under there by each of her worried parents. Lee Rogow's story seems to have cemented the custom in American homes.

Of course, a dime no longer cuts it. Most parents leave a dollar or even a five-dollar bill. A few extravagant souls leave a ten or a twenty, wanting to show up the rest of the playground crowd—or rather, their parents. The average rate for the Tooth Fairy to leave in the United States in 2013 was $3.70.

Now you can buy things like little pillows and boxes for leaving your tooth out for the Tooth Fairy.
(Etsy, StrawberryKissesKids)
A monster tooth pillow that looks like it just might bite the Tooth Fairy.
(Etsy, kidscreationsbylmg)

Despite the firming up of the Tooth Fairy myth in our culture, not everyone pictures her (or him!) the same way. The Wikipedia article for the Tooth Fairy states:

A 1984 study conducted by [children's book author] Rosemary Wells revealed that most, 74 percent of those surveyed, believed the tooth fairy to be female, while 12 percent believed the tooth fairy to be neither male nor female and 8 percent believed the tooth fairy could be either male or female. When asked about her findings regarding the tooth fairy's appearance, Wells explained—"You've got your basic Tinkerbell-type tooth fairy with the wings, wand, a little older and whatnot. Then you have some people who think of the tooth fairy as a man, or a bunny rabbit or a mouse." One review of published children's books and popular artwork found the tooth fairy to also be depicted as a child with wings, a pixie, a dragon, a blue mother-figure, a flying ballerina, two little old men, a dental hygienist, a potbellied flying man smoking a cigar, a bat, a bear and others. Unlike the well-established imagining of Santa Claus, differences in renderings of the tooth fairy are not as upsetting to children.

In a 2010 movie named The Tooth Fairy, the head fairy is played by Julie Andrews, and she makes Duane "the Rock" Johnson work as a tooth fairy as a punishment, which is pretty funny. Of course, there are many children's books about the Tooth Fairy. One of my favorites is Bob Graham's April and Esme: Tooth Fairies, in which two little girl fairies are learning the family business. You can also check out Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions from Around the World by Selby Beeler.

And be sure to celebrate on February 28, which is National Tooth Fairy Day in the United States!

Someone even made a special door for the Tooth Fairy. (Grosgrain blog)


Articles about the history of the Tooth Fairy can be found at the following sites:

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