Tooth Fairy. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Mythological sprite of childhood that magically appears at night to make an exchange,
usually monetary, for a shed baby tooth. An acknowledged 20th-century popular-culture
figure, the tooth fairy has roots in age-old rites of passage that mark the child’s transition
from infant to cognizant youngster. As such, the tooth fairy and the ritual of exchange
(gift for tooth) tie in with superstitions and ancient ceremonies of life, death, and rebirth.
Ancient folk methods to dispose of the shed baby tooth—throwing it to the sun or to a
rodent, usually a mouse or some other animal; throwing it over or onto a roof; placing it
in a tree, wall, or piece of furniture; salting, burning, or hiding it; or having someone or
something swallow it—are practiced in the 1990s in European, African, and Asian
countries, and in some isolated areas of the United States. However, in North America a
singular tooth fairy takes precedence over these older rituals.
Variously known as an ubiquitous “good fairy” or “fairy godmother,” one or more
fairies appeared in the United States early in the 1900s to exchange a tooth for candy or
money. Later, this “good fairy” became specialized, as shown in Lee Rogow’s 1949
story, “TheTooth Fairy.” Rosemary Wells’ 1980 survey showed that the rate of exchange
from 1900 to 1980 reflected the rising price index, that a singular tooth fairy was firmly
entrenched in family life, and that parents voluntarily promoted the practice.
Economic affluence, emphasis on the child, an explosion of media fairies, and, more
recently, commercial enterprises, helped change the tooth fairy from folk belief to
national icon. In children’s literature alone, this fairy appeared in sk known stories in the
1960s, eleven in the 1970s, twenty-nine in the 1980s, and eighteen in the first two years
of the 1990s, not to count the innumerable cartoons, jokes, and references in adult
literature. The 1980s also saw the rise of commercial pillows, kits, jewelry, dolls, boxes,
and banks. The late 1980s fairy became the “Expanded DutyTooth Fairy,” interested not
only in children’s good dental-health habits but in their social ones as well. The fairy,
typically female and beneficent, always arrives at night while the child sleeps, generally
looks under the pillow and absconds with the shed tooth after leaving a fair exchange.
While this action is stereotyped, the reasons for the action vary, as does the image (adult,
child, animal) and the tale involved This seemingly simple rite of passage is really complex and significant. It marks the
physiological change in the child, the sociological one when the child shifts from home to
school, and the psychological one when the child accepts an adult view and disbelieves in
the fairy. It is a cultural event as well, promoted by parents to encourage imagination, but
also to hold the child back from entering the harsh adult world too soon. The tooth-fairy
period is voluntarily initiated twice, first in childhood, then in parenthood. It can last until
all twenty baby teeth exfoliate, contrary to other cultures in which only the first shed
tooth is honored, and it is enacted without a verbal charm or saying, again contrary to
other cultures.
The tooth fairy’s genealogy is obscure. England, Ireland, and Scotland have
referenced fairies for centuries. However, these fairies were capable of evil as well as
good, and any fairy could act on a child’s behalf. The singular tooth fairy with a
dedicated occupation was not documented by lona Opie and MoiraTatem until a 1987
entry in the latest edition of A Dictionary of Superstitions. Current British children’s
stories of the late 20th century still place a tooth fairy in a large group of similar
scavengers. Tad Tuleja has conjectured a possible relationship with the toothless Italian
witch Marantega who functions as a tooth fairy, but by 1920, the referent source date, the
fairy, not a witch, was well established in American folklore. More probable is the
metamorphosis from tooth mouse, a much older and more widespread tradition, to tooth
fairy through an 18th-century French fairy tale, “La Bonne Petite Souris,” in which a
mouse, changing into a fairy to help a good queen fight an evil king, hides under a pillow
to heckle the king and punishes him by knocking out his teeth. Although Tuleja, William
Carter, and colleagues think this is a “credible mechanism” to tie the two traditions of
tooth mouse and tooth fairy together, no child, no exfoliated baby tooth, and no exchange
of tooth with replacement gift are involved. The actual progenitor of the tooth fairy is still
Rosemary Wells
Carter, William, Bernard Butterworth, Joseph Carter, and John Carter. 1987. Ethnodentistry and
Dental Folklore. Overland Park, KA: Dental Folklore Books of Kansas City.
Hand, Wayland D. 1981. European Folklore in the New World. Folklore 92 (2): 141–148.
Opie, lona, and MoiraTatem. 1989. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rogow, Lee. 1949. The Tooth Fairy. Colliers 124:26.
Rooth, Anna. 1982. Offering of the First Tooth. Uppsala: Ethnological Institute.
Tuleja, Tad. 1991. The Tooth Fairy: Perspectives on Money and Magic. In The GoodPeople: New
Fairylore Essays, ed. Peter Narvaez. New York: Garland, pp. 406–425.
Wells, Rosemary. 1983. Tracking theTooth Fairy. Cal. Magazine 46 (12):1–8, 47 (1):18–25, 47
——. 1991. The Making of an Icon: The Tooth Fairy in North American Folklore and Popular
Culture. In The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, ed. Peter Narvaez. New York: Garland,
pp. 426–453.