Along with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy is a symbol of childhood. Every child loves hiding a lost tooth under their pillow in exchange for a treat of some sort. But where exactly does the legend of the Tooth Fairy come from?
Rituals related to tooth loss date back centuries, and are quite varied. An early European tradition was to bury the lost teeth, with the thought this would help the permanent teeth grow. Vikings sometimes used their children’s teeth as good luck charms in battle. The tradition of exchanging a tooth for money originated in Europe, where a coin was often left after the sixth tooth was lost.
“In America, the tooth fairy is depicted often just as that – a small, delicate, winged fairy,” says pediatric dentist Dr. Nanna Ariaban. “But the image of the tooth fairy varies from culture to culture. Instead of a fairy, the character has been depicted as a mouse, bear, bat and even a dragon. The tooth mouse is the most common in areas such as Russia, Spain and Asia. Just like our fairy, the mouse creeps into a child’s room at night and removes the lost tooth.”
In the United States, the tooth fairy is a rather “new” tradition, dating back only 100 years or so. A play title “The Tooth Fairy” came out in 1927, and the first known book with that title was published in 1947. The legend seems to have started spreading in the 1950s, and today is as commonplace as Santa and the Easter Bunny.
Our American tooth fairy is thought to be a combination of the mouse traditions from other parts of the world, combined with the “good fairy” European character that made its way to America and was popularized in pop culture by the likes of Walt Disney and others.
Many believe that the tradition arose to help alleviate fears children may have about losing their teeth. The tooth fairy can provide a sense of comfort to children at what is otherwise a bit of a scary and confusing time for them. Losing a tooth is often the first big rite of passage for children, and having a story like the tooth fairy to help can make losing a tooth exciting rather than scary.
And it appears that the tooth fairy is getting more generous as time goes on, as well. In the 1950s, the tooth fairy left an average of a nickel for each lost tooth. A Visa survey found that today, the average child in America receives $3.70 per tooth. Traditions vary between families, but along with the European tradition, the fairy may leave more money for the first or last tooth, or for bigger teeth such as molars.
What is your tooth fairy tradition? We’d love to hear what your family does to celebrate the loss of a tooth, a big milestone in the life of a child. Share your tooth fairy stories with us at your next visit!