If you grew up in America, there's a pretty good chance you had at least one run-in with a tooth fairy. But, where the hell did this strange myth come from in the first place? Does it have ancient roots, is it linked with Greek mythology, is it a wonderful myth as old as humankind?
Not exactly. In fact, it's a very recent mythical being with very American origins.
Let's first address what we know, more or less, about the tooth fairy today. First, a child has to lose a "baby tooth". The baby tooth is then placed under the pillow at night while the child sleeps. The child may also include a note with the tooth, thanking the tooth fairy and asking for some sort of present or wish. Finally, when the child wakes up the next morning there is a small token underneath the pillow, usually money and the tooth and the note are gone!
Now that that has been established, let's get into where this strange tradition started.
The tradition of dealing with baby teeth is much older than the tooth fairy herself. According to Michael Higston, a reporter from Salon covering the strange history of the tooth fairy, "Every recorded human culture has some kind of tradition surrounding the disposal of a child’s lost baby teeth."
These disposal methods, of course, was of interest to many cultural anthropologists and researchers and one such researcher, BR. Townend, even distilled it down to 9 basic forms.
- The tooth was thrown into the sun
- Thrown into the fire
- Thrown between the legs
- Thrown onto or over the roof of the house, often with an invocation to some animal or individual
- Placed in a mouse hole near the stove or hearth or offered to some other animal
- Hidden where animals could not get it
- Placed in a tree or on a wall
- Swallowed by the mother, child or animal.
This same question - "Where" and "Why" boggled a professor at Northwestern University Dental School, named Rosemary Wells. She began what would become a career-defining search for the origins of the tooth fairy, going as far as opening a museum of the tooth fairy run out of her home and appearing on major entertainment programs like the Oprah Winfrey show.
So, what year did the tooth fairy officially sashay onto the scene? According to the research of Wells and others, around 1927 is her first print appearance. She is a character in a short, 8 page playlet for children by Esther Watkins Arnold. However, there is some belief that she was mentioned orally as early as the turn of the 19th century. Although, of course, there is not much written record of it.
Her origins are believed to be a cross between two myths. First, the legend of a mouse that sneaks into a child’s bedroom and performs the cash-for-teeth swap - a legend that spans everywhere from Russia to Mexico. The second is the typical “good fairy,” a mainly European figure that crept its way over the Atlantic. This lore mixed the rise of Disney in the mid-1960s and became a cultural explosion of the tooth fairy.
It is believed the tooth fairy has remained in the popular zeitgeist for so long because of the purpose she serves. Losing one's teeth, especially at such a young age, can be quite scary. There is the tension of anxiety of waiting for a wiggly tooth to come out, sometimes a necessary tug, and often blood. The tooth fairy myth offers comfort during this strange and uncomfortable time, promising that the pain and scariness of the event will end in a treat from a magical being.
So, what makes it so American?
In her article "Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith,” Cindy Dell Clark, another academic researcher, argued that "the use of monetary rewards — and leaving money for each tooth, not just the first one, is another distinctly American invention — helps children transition into the world of adulthood, where cash is a symbol of increased agency and responsibility." Not to mention, the rise in popularity follows at a time of American prosperity. During the great depression, just giving away nickels and dimes would not make sense. However, during a time of more economic prosperity, the tooth fairy myth could flourish.
So there you have it - the strange, slightly convulted myth of the tooth fairy!
The above image is from Flickr user Ginny and is liscensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).