The tooth fairy is a vital figure in most childhoods, as many develop a relationship with the winged creature who whisks their teeth away in exchange for a gift beneath their pillows. This custom often spans years as children grow and lose their teeth, yet there is very little knowledge about the origin of this wonderful cultural tradition.
Surprisingly, almost every ancient culture has a history of rituals regarding the disposal of children’s lost teeth. Whether it was burying them or burning them, these globally diverse acts run parallel to that culture’s burial customs in their respective societies. America is the birthplace of the miniature fairy who sneaks in to leave a monetary reward or gift under the pillow of sleeping children in exchange for their recently lost tooth. Although the tooth fairy is native to America, her roots lie in the amalgamation of rituals from cultures all around the world.
The British had a custom of gifting “fairy coins” to sleeping servant girls, and in Ireland, it was believed a tooth placed next to a sleeping child could fool a malevolent spirit. In Italy, the Venetian version of Santa would give presents or coins to children who lost a tooth. France has a rich history relating to both fairies and teeth; the 18th century brought the fairytale La Bonne Petite Souris, which tells a tale of a good queen who, trapped by an evil king, befriends a mouse to aid her in escaping. The mouse turns out to be a fairy who knocks out the king’s teeth and hides them under his pillow right before he meets his demise. The story was re-released as an illustrated children’s book in the 1920s, which helped reinforce the image of the mouse-fairy, although the notion did not fully take off until after World War II.
At the core of the tooth fairy’s history is the mouse, both from France’s fairytale and a widely practiced ritual of offering a lost tooth accompanied by song or prayer as sacrifice to a mouse or rat, hoping the new tooth would grow back as strong as a rodent’s. From Russia to New Zealand to Mexico, mice were commended and revered for their sturdy teeth; some countries still leave children’s teeth to mice in exchange for a gift today.
The creation of the American tooth fairy is in sum a combination of various tales across cultures of a mouse that swaps gifts for children’s teeth and the good fairy figure that Walt Disney helped create. Based on a traditionally European folk character, around the time fairies began gaining traction overseas, Disney began releasing films depicting benevolent fairies with special powers to grant wishes. These classic movies such as Pinocchio and Cinderella, in addition to pop culture in general, helped solidify the fairy’s place in American culture.
After World War II, there were changes in society that also contributed to the success of the tooth fairy in the American household. With the end of the war came an increase in prosperity, a shift toward a child-centered view of the American family unit and an increase in fairy figures in the media, all of which were conducive to the permanence of the tooth fairy. At this time, popularity waxed of a fairy who brought coins to children in exchange for their lost teeth. A publication of Collier’s magazine in 1949 included a mention of this mysterious fairy; however, she did not receive an actual referenced citation until 30 years later in the World Book encyclopedia. In the 1970s, a radio disk jockey in Chicago made an on-air reference to this unknown tooth fairy, resulting in an overwhelming amount of calls to the American Dental Association from people demanding an explanation.
These diverse tales and sparse references only resulted in more confusion as to where this figure came from. Finally, Rosemary Wells, a professor at Northwestern University Dental School, took it upon herself to get to the bottom of this creature’s roots. Rosemary, like many others, was baffled at how the practice of replacing a child’s tooth left under a pillow with money was in place in millions of American households, yet no one knew why. She began with a series of magazine articles and later conducted a survey of roughly 2,000 parents. A decade later, she had gathered enough information to open her own museum dedicated to the tooth fairy. Her business card read, “Tooth Fairy Consultant,” and she became synonymous with the figure, even appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She ran the museum out of her house in Deerfield, Illinois from 1993 until her death in 2000.
But why does this figure even exist? Why is there a need for a figure that collects teeth and rewards children? The tooth fairy serves as a source of comfort and excitement during an otherwise scary event for a child. Many argue that she also helps children transition into the adult world of a market economy, acting as a tool for parents to teach their children about monetization, the exchange of goods and services, and responsibility. No matter if this fairy is a children’s lesson in macroeconomics, her rewards do correlate with the economy’s rate of inflation, or perhaps she has just gotten generous with age — a child was rewarded an average of 12 cents for a tooth in 1900, but a tooth today can yield as much as $1 to $5.
The tooth fairy is now a fixture of American culture, appearing in dozens of children’s books, in movies and even on specialized pillows, some featuring a tooth-holding pocket. What began as a ritual hoping for children to grow strong teeth evolved into a tale of a generous mouse saving a queen and, eventually, a fairy who brings gifts to growing children sleeping atop their lost teeth.