A Brief History of the Tooth Fairy

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

(Image credit: Flickr user Jenn Durfey)

Losing baby teeth is one of the earliest and most anticipated rites of passage for a young child. In our part of the world, it often involves a visit from the tooth fairy. But just how old is the tradition, and what came before it? This visit from the trivia fairy will reveal all.

TOOTH OR CONSEQUENCES

“Shed tooth rituals,” as anthropologists and folklorists call the traditions that accompany the loss of baby teeth, have varied widely from one place to another and from one time to another. Every human culture has such rituals, and many have a feature in common: whatever is done with the baby tooth is done in the belief that it will protect the child from harm or ensure that a strong, healthy permanent tooth grows in to replace the old tooth.

For centuries in Europe, it was common practice to “plant” baby teeth in the ground as if they were seeds. Doing so was thought to encourage the growth of the new tooth. Planting the tooth also kept it from falling into the hands of a witch, who could use it to cast spells on the child who lost it. (If there was any question as to whether the tooth had already been bewitched, throwing it into a fire destroyed the tooth and broke the spell.)

THE FIRST TOOTH FAIRY

If you’re like Uncle John and you’ve ever lived in a place that has been infested with mice, you’ve probably noticed that the pests can chew through just about anything, even wood. This did not go unnoticed in generations past, when homes had dirt floors and rodent infestations were a fact of life.

In those days most people were all but toothless by the time they reached their mid-30s. Mice, by comparison, never lose their teeth because their teeth never stop growing. Perhaps it was inevitable that toothless humans would come to associate mice with strong teeth, and begin to offer their children’s baby teeth as “gifts” to mice in the hope that some of the toughness of their teeth would transfer back to the child. Anthropologists call this “sympathetic magic.” In some places the parent or child would give the baby tooth to the mouse by throwing it out the window. In other places they tossed it over a shoulder, under a bed, onto the roof, into the yard, or left it as an offering next to a mouse hole somewhere in the house. Whatever the custom locally, it was accompanied by a saying such as “mouse, mouse, here is a tooth, now give me another one.”

FRENCH BREAD

Folklorists believe that France is the place where this tradition evolved into “trading” the baby tooth not for a healthy permanent tooth but rather for money or a small gift. When a child lost a tooth, they placed it in their slipper or shoe and left it out overnight. While the child slept, le petit souris (the little mouse) would come and take the tooth away and leave a coin in its place. As James Wynbrandt relates in An Excruciating History of Dentistry, “a barter system also developed wherein a sleeping youngster could trade a tooth for candy, not with a mouse but with a good fairy.”

AMERICAN-MADE

By the early 1900s, the tradition of exchanging baby teeth for money or gifts had spread to the United States, where children began to put their teeth under their pillow instead of in a shoe. And rather than give it to a mouse or to a random good fairy, children began to give it to one fairy in particular: the tooth fairy. It’s not known precisely when or where in the United States the tooth fairy made its first appearance, but by the time the first story featuring the tooth fairy (an eponymous children’s play) appeared in print in 1927, the tradition is believed to have become quite widespread.

AROUND THE WORLD

Norway. The Vikings, who raided and plundered much of coastal Europe from 800 to 1100, believed that baby teeth brought good luck, so they strung them into necklaces and wore them into battle. This tradition may be related to another ancient Norse custom, that of paying a tannfe, or “tooth fee,” to a child when they lost their first tooth.

Spain. Children leave their tooth under their pillow for Ratoncito Pérez (Pérez Mouse), who leaves a coin in exchange for the tooth. Tales involving a character named Ratón Pérez first appeared in print in Spain in 1877, but he didn’t get involved in the tooth-swapping business until 1894, when the eight-year-old boy king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, became upset over a lost tooth. His mother, Queen Maria Cristina, hired a journalist named Luis Coloma to write a story that would calm His Majesty down. Kids in Spain, Mexico, and other Spanish-speaking countries have been leaving their baby teeth out for Ratón Pérez ever since, though in some regions he’s known as Ratón de los Dientes (the Tooth Mouse).

Argentina. Kids leave their tooth for Ratón Pérez in a glass of water instead of under their pillow. Ratón Pérez takes the tooth, drinks the water, and leaves a coin or a small gift in the empty glass.

Colombia. Children leave their teeth out for a mouse named El Ratón Miguelito: “Mickey Mouse.” (No word on what the Walt Disney Company thinks of this.) Sometimes the parents will have the tooth dipped in gold or silver and made into a piece of jewelry.

Scotland. The Scots have their own unique blend of the tooth fairy and rodent traditions: in their case, the tooth fairy or “white fairy” is a rat.

Turkey. Here baby teeth are buried. Where they’re buried depends on what the child wants to be when they grow up, or what the parent wants for them. If the child wants to be a firefighter, for example, they might bury the tooth next to a firehouse.

Tajikistan. Teeth are buried here too, in the belief that they will grow into warriors.

Pakistan. Children wrap the tooth in cotton, then wait until sunset and throw it into a river for good luck.

Southeast Asia and Japan. Children throw their lower teeth straight up in the air, and their upper teeth straight down onto the ground or, if possible, under the floor. (This is believed to help the new teeth grow in straight, because when the new tooth grows in it will grow in the same direction that the old tooth was thrown.) While the child throws the tooth, they ask for it to be replaced by the tooth of a mouse.



China. If it’s an upper tooth, it’s placed at the foot of the bed. If it’s a lower tooth, it’s thrown on the roof, again in the hope that this will help the new tooth to grow in straight.

The Philippines. The child makes a wish and hides the tooth. After a year has passed, if they can find the tooth again, they get to make a second wish.

Nigeria. The child throws the tooth into the attic and asks the mice up there not to eat the tooth. If the mice do eat it, the new tooth will not grow in. Another tradition is for the child to put the tooth in their fist with some stones (eight stones for boys, and six for girls), then throw the objects into the air and run away as quickly as possible.

South Africa. Instead of putting their tooth under their pillow, South African kids put it in a slipper.

Lithuania. Who says you have to give your teeth away? Lithuanian kids keep theirs as souvenirs.

Arab world. Children in many Arab countries throw baby teeth into the sky or toward Allah.

_______________________________

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader. The 29th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories, facts, and lists, and comes in both the Kindle version and paperback.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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