A typical tooth fairy image…
At Christmas I wrote about the origins of Santa’s elves; in this posting I want to look at that other modern fairy myth, the tooth fairy. The tooth fairy belief in the Western and in Western-influenced cultures tells that, when a child loses one of their baby teeth, they should place it under their pillow before bed and the tooth fairy will visit while they sleep, replacing the lost tooth with a small payment.
In northern Europe, there is an ancient tradition of tand-fé or tooth fee, which was paid when a child lost its first tooth. This is recorded as early as the Icelandic Poetic Edda, in which there is reference in verse 5 of Grimnismol (‘The sayings of Grimnir’) to a ‘tooth gift’- in this case, Freyr was given Alfheim by the gods (which certainly beats our 6d under the pillow).
Later, in medieval England, children were encouraged to burn their milk teeth so as to protect themselves from hardship in the afterlife. It was believed that children who did not do so would spend eternity searching for the teeth after death; a related idea was that (as with any shed bodily part) if a witch were to get hold of a shed tooth, it could give them power over the former owner, therefore its destruction was advisable.
Viking warriors are said to have paid children for their shed milk-teeth: these, and other articles belonging to infants, were believed to bring good luck in battle and so were strung around their necks. There is some evidence that trolls may have been blamed for toothache in Finland and Scandinavia.
It is clear that from a very early date there was a supernatural association with an infant’s first teeth. This may have been related to the process of maturing and the child’s loss of dependence and innocence; the teeth themselves may have been believed to have carried with them some sort of spiritual power that could protect or be used for evil. There was personal and social value in this.
The modern tooth fairy
The modern version of these traditions, in which a fairy rewards the infant, has been dated to the twentieth century. However, amongst the earliest references is an entry written by in the ‘Household Hints’ section of the Chicago Daily Tribune during 1908:
“Tooth Fairy: 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 five cent counter and lay in a supply of articles to be used on such occasions.”
Earlier still, in 1902 American poet Amos Russel Wells (1862-1933) published a poem Tom’s tooth on the subject, indicating that there was already an association between fairies and teeth in North America by the close of the nineteenth century:
“The word went forth in Fairyland,
(From ugly fays, in sooth!)
“Young Tom’s had too much candy;
He needs an aching tooth!”
So Fever hurried from the south,
And from the west came Grumps,
And from the east came Puffy Face,
And from the north came Thumps.
They quickly spied a hollow tooth
(Where Tom had failed to brush);
They clapped their little, impish hands,
And made a silent rush.
They thumped the tooth, they banged the tooth,
The mocking, cruel crew;
They rasped the nerve, they ground the nerve,
They pierced it through and through.
From nine o’clock till twelve o’clock
They racked the groaning child,
Till Tom was “almost crazy,”
His mother, “fairly wild.”
At length between his moans and cries
Young Tom was heard to say,
“I’ll give my teeth less candy,
And brush them twice a day.”
Bang, bang! The impish fairy four
Each dealt a parting thwack,
Then off they flew, east, west, north, south,
And nevermore came back.”
What is the tooth fairy?
The fairy is generally conceived of as a small winged female being. Its function appears to be to comfort a child for the pain and distress involved in the loss of teeth. It may be clear to regular readers of this blog that this conjunction of ideas can only really have occurred in the nineteenth century when the tiny, winged, friendly fay had become well-established, and probably only in the USA where a variety of existing European traditions might meet each other and be mixed together.
It seems from research that children tend to realise that the tooth fairy is an imaginary being around the ages of five and seven years old. This maturing attitude often affects belief in similar gift bearing beings like Santa Claus and the Easter bunny at the same time. However the cultural and commercial forces that served to propagate the story during the last century also serve to perpetuate it as a pleasant childhood myth.
In other (south) European countries there seems to be a relatively recent story of a rodent (rat or mouse) exchanging milk teeth for money or some other gift. World-wide, too, related ceremonies mark the loss of milk teeth.
Overall, the tooth fairy, and most particularly its very close association with children of a young age, demonstrates the way that fairy belief has been devalued and disarmed. These modern nursery fairies are wholly beneficent and friendly; they are to be welcomed, not feared; they are saccharine confections vastly removed from the original folk beliefs related to milk teeth and from the nature of traditional fairies. Nonetheless, perhaps the tooth fairy deserves some sort of grudging respect from us for her ability to spread globally and her tenacious survival in the modern wold, where other fairy species have weakened and disappeared.
Another delightful tooth fairy, from Colourbox.