The roots of the Tooth Fairy
While working on the chapter on teeth in my book Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour, I became intrigued by the Tooth Fairy and did a fair amount of research on her. This content didn’t make it into the book, but on the day before National Tooth Fairy Day, I figured I would show you the results of my study.
February 28th is National Tooth Fairy Day – a day celebrated by precisely no one, except American dental practices encouraging patients to come in for their next teeth cleaning.1 Here, the Tooth Fairy stands in stark contrast to her two more feted siblings (Easter Bunny and Santa Claus), who not only get their own day in many western countries but their own holiday.
Yet, despite the lack of fanfare surrounding her, it was the Tooth Fairy who was singled out during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as an essential worker. When kids expressed their fears that the Tooth Fairy wouldn’t pay them a visit (or just pay them, as it were) various leaders reassured the public that she would be continuing to operate as usual, from Anthony Fauci, the then director of the US National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, and Francois Legault, the Premier of Quebec, to the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern.2
These actions speak to the significance of the Tooth Fairy: the most elusive figure in the trinity of Anglo-American cultural myths aimed at children. While she shares various attributes with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – they are all of the housebreaking persuasion and are in the habit of leaving gifts – she demands something in return: a baby tooth. Plus, she prefers cold, hard cash to toys, clothes, and chocolate – kind of like a mythical pawn broker with a penchant for children’s teeth.
It’s her connection with teeth that makes the Tooth Fairy so fascinating,3 primarily because the story speaks to a shared cross-cultural preoccupation with human teeth, and the widespread ritual significance attached to them. As Rosemary Wells observes in The Good People: Essays in Fairylore, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny ‘do not carry the same remarkable association with ancient rituals as does the Tooth Fairy’.
Anthropologically speaking, teeth are fascinating objects. Teeth, especially ancient ones, are prized by archaeologists and biological anthropologists for what they reveal about human health and evolution. But teeth are also highly culturally significant – an observation first made by the anthropologist James Frazer in his nineteenth-century opus, The Golden Bough. In his discussion of sympathetic magic, Frazer argued that objects take on magical significance based on either physical resemblance or prior physical connection. For example, a root resembling a tooth might be used to treat a toothache; alternatively, a human tooth might be used against its owner in witchcraft or sorcery based on the assumption that it retains some of its owner’s essence.
Baby teeth are particularly prone to ritualised forms of disposal. Depending on the cultural context, the tooth might be thrown towards the sun or over a roof; it might be buried, eaten, or burned; it might be offered to squirrel, beaver, or another straight-toothed animal – or tossed into a mouse’s hole or the sea for the use of a dolphin. As the anthropologist Cindy Dell Clark notes, ‘with striking regularity, the developmental process is aided by external powers (such as ancestors or potent animals), who are called upon to give good, straight teeth’.
So when and why did the Tooth Fairy come about? In The Good People: Essays in Fairylore, Tad Tuleja suggests that the Tooth Fairy is an early twentieth-century American creation, although he points to a longstanding tradition of philanthropic pixies in European folklore, along with Irish and British folk traditions rich in stories of less benign beings. In such accounts, fairies were prone to swapping human babies for changelings, with parents foiling would-be kidnappers via a form of surrogate sacrifice (such as a tooth).4 However, he also suggests that the Tooth Fairy is connected with the Tooth Mouse – a mythology widespread throughout Europe that was exported to Latin America during the colonial period.
Known by various names, in Spanish-speaking cultures his most common appellation is El Ratoncito Pérez (‘Little Mouse Pérez’) or Ratón Pérez (‘Pérez Mouse’), and his cultural significance is attested to by the fact that he has been the subject of his own feature film. Although El Ratoncito Pérez generally leaves a gift rather than money and is a mouse rather than a fairy, the two myths share enough similarities to likely have common (ahem) roots. But Tuleja suggests that the American variant has a distinctively capitalist twist: it’s a means of implicitly teaching children the principles of economics. After all, the going rate of a tooth has increased with inflation. Going further, he argues that unlike Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy’s promise is purely monetary, demonstrating that ‘anything, even your own body, can be turned into gold’.
The flaw in Tuleja’s analysis is that the tooth left for the Tooth Fairy is not treated as merely a commodity that children exchange for money. Rather, it’s an object used in magical and benevolent ways, although just what the Tooth Fairy does with the teeth remains an open question. According to research Clark conducted with American children, many imagined that the Tooth Fairy used the teeth to make something valuable – like jewelry, flowers or stars. Others thought the teeth were recycled and given to new babies. Another variant on the theme is that she uses teeth as jewelry – witness Ann Tegen Hill’s depiction of the Tooth Fairy wearing a crown, bib, and belt that, on closer inspection, are revealed to be made of teeth.5
Most researchers suggest that the key to understanding the Tooth Fairy is her positive role in psycho-social development. For example, Brandon Barker highlights the significance of the Tooth Fairy in ritualising important developmental milestones. Cindy Dell Clark likewise points to the value of the myth in motivating children to gladly undergo the discomfort of losing their baby teeth. In effect, the Tooth Fairy helps children to handle what is otherwise a physically and psychologically traumatic experience (as anyone who has ever experienced the horror of a teeth-falling-out dream can readily attest!). These points have been echoed by psychologists, who have argued that the Tooth Fairy helps children come to terms with the fact that they are growing up. Indeed, the Tooth Fairy appears to be the first belief that children age out of; it generally disappears long before the loss of one’s last baby tooth.
A final point of contrast between the Tooth Fairy and her brethren is the fact that our representations of her are far more varied than that of Santa and the Easter Bunny. While the Tooth Fairy is most commonly depicted as an ethereal Tinker Bell-like creature, Rosemary Wells suggests that this is a post-war representation influenced by Disney movies. Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt’s children’s book You Think It’s Easy Being the Tooth Fairy?, speaks directly back to this depiction, with the Tooth Fairy re-imagined as a kind of kick-arse feminist icon. ‘Let’s get one thing straight, OK?’, the Tooth Fairy says in the book. ‘I never wear pink flouncing skirts or twinkling glass slippers! That’s Cinderella. She does a lot of sitting around the castle looking pretty. Boring! Me, I’m an action kind of gal. I live for danger! For suspense!’
But it’s worth noting that in the early development of the folklore, the Tooth Fairy was not consistently depicted as female; instead, she took numerous forms. This variability remains to some degree in our cultural representations, where the Tinkerbell version now competes with an anthropomorphized tooth6 and, er, The Rock (although the Tooth Fairy film only works because our cultural representations are broad enough to encompass this version; Santa Claus is not so malleable).
So, on February 28th, spare a thought for the Tooth Fairy. While she gets far less publicity than her two mythical male counterparts,7 she is arguably more socially and psychologically significant than either. Plus, she’s just more interesting. With her ancient roots, creepy undertones, and malleable form, she deserves to be celebrated – and not just by dentists flogging their services to families. Long may she reign.
This also explains why there are not one but two National Tooth Fairy days – the second one being on August 22nd. According to Holidays Calendar, this is because ‘the American Dental Association recommends that people get their teeth cleaned every six months — and these two observance days are spaced to help remind people of that fact’. This would be news to most Brits and Australians, many of whom have never had a professional cleaning in their lives, dental hygienists being primarily a North American profession that has only recently made its way to the old country and down under.
Actually, Ardern did flag the Easter Bunny as an essential worker as well, although she immediately threw him under the bus, telling kids that he might not make it to all their houses in 2020.
And, let’s be honest, creepy, which is why the Tooth Fairy has served as the inspiration for at least one B-grade horror movie.
This puts a slightly more sinister slant on the Tooth Fairy, who is presumably bent on kidnapping the child but is fooled into taking the tooth instead — so her sinister intentions are basically tempered by her stupidity.
This is a perfect illustration of the simultaneously sweet-but-sinister dimensions of the Tooth Fairy. She might look like a fairy princess, but if she appeared before you in that getup, with those handy pliers hanging off her belt, you’d run.
Come to think of it, it’s little surprise that she has come to be characterised as female, given that Santa and the Easter Bunny come but once a year to considerable fanfare, while she toils away unsung and never gets a day off.