Placing a tooth under your pillow and waking up with cash in its place is a rite of passage for kids. What is the lore — and magic — of the tooth fairy?
Editor’s note: Savvy mattress retailers want to do everything they can to help their customers sleep better, including offering them sound advice and tips. Feel free to share this great guidance from Better Sleep Council spokeswoman Lissa Coffey with your shoppers (with credit given, of course). The BSC is the consumer education arm of the International Sleep Products Association.
As the legend goes, when children lose one of their baby teeth and then place it under their pillow, a sprite known as the tooth fairy comes along and swaps out the tooth for money while the children sleep. Many kids will confirm that this has happened to them. They put a lost tooth under their pillow, go to sleep and, in the morning when they wake up, they find money where the tooth had been. If you’re curious about how this phenomenon came about, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve done some investigative reporting to get to the root of the story.
Evidently, the tradition of disposing of children’s lost baby teeth dates back centuries. In medieval England, superstition led people to burn the lost teeth. They were afraid that in the afterlife the person would search for their teeth if they still were around. Others believed that if a witch got ahold of a tooth, she would have power over the person it had belonged to. Elsewhere, children were taught to feed their teeth to animals to dispose of them. There were various other ways to get rid of the teeth, such as holding them up to the sun or the sky or hiding them in a tree. Some thought burying their children’s baby teeth in a garden would help the permanent teeth to grow in.
Show them the money
The tradition of giving money in exchange for children’s teeth began in Northern Europe with a tand-fe, or tooth fee, that children were paid when they lost their first tooth. In Norse culture, children’s teeth were said to bring good luck in battle, so Vikings often paid children for their teeth. The 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 a tooth for money became popular in Mexico, Russia 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. Many scholars believe the mouse story is 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, who offered this 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.”
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 often is portrayed as very “Tinkerbell”-like — small and delicate, with wings and a wand. This explains how she can get in and out of houses, as well as under pillows, without being detected. It also explains how she can magically carry a coin or a tooth.
Now that we’re in the 21st century, what purpose does the tooth fairy serve? She actually plays an important role in our family systems. As Brown notes, believing 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. Children may have some discomfort for a bit, but there’s a happy ending with a nice reward in the morning. At the age when children lose their baby teeth, having a little bit of money to call their own also can help with the transition into adulthood. Money is a marker to allow a child to experience some responsibility.
The tooth fairy also helps provide comfort to the parents during this time of transition. Their child may be losing teeth, but the fantasy of the tooth fairy reassures parents their child is still very much a child.
Today, the tooth fairy is 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, little pewter boxes to keep teeth in, and several books and cartoons to explain the story.
The price of teeth the tooth fairy pays has gone up with inflation. While you and I might have found some coins under the pillow, according to a survey by Visa, the current average payment of a tooth is about $3.70. Some parents report 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 spokeswoman for the Better Sleep Council and the founder of CoffeyTalk.com. A lifestyle and wellness expert, she’s written several books and has been a frequent guest on national and local television shows.