For many families, a lost baby tooth means a visit from the Tooth Fairy and the exchange of money for the pearly white. But have you ever wondered how the friendly, businesslike fairy came to be? While tales of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny have long been traced back by historians and folklorists, the Tooth Fairy’s beginnings remained a mystery until the 1990s, when folklorists Rosemary Wells and Tad Tuleja released their research on her origins.
As it turns out, the Tooth Fairy is a recent addition to the mythological world. She first appeared in print as part of an eight-page playlet for children by Esther Watkins Arnold in 1927. Oral traditions date her to around the turn of the 20th century, but rituals for tooth loss date back much further than that. Many cultures, both ancient and modern, have traditions for disposing of teeth. Some of these involve burning the tooth, burying it in a hole or a wall, or even swallowing it.
The loss of a baby tooth tends to be the first of many rites of passages in a child’s life, and the Tooth Fairy serves as a source of comfort during an experience that can be scary. Not by accident, the Tooth Fairy ritual reflects the three stages of a rite of passage: separation (when the child loses a tooth and leaves it under the pillow), transition (when the child falls asleep), and incorporation (when the child wakes up to find money). In “Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith,” anthropologist Cindy Dell Clark explains that the monetary reward is an American invention meant to help children pass into the world of adulthood, where cash is a symbol of responsibility and independence.
In countries around the world, children leave their lost teeth out at bedtime to be exchanged for money or some other gift by a mythical creature. For French children, this creature is a mouse called La Petite Souris, and in several Spanish-speaking nations, it’s Ratóncito Pérez. The Tooth Fairy is thought to be an American combination of two mythical figures: the mouse that exchanges teeth for cash and the “good fairy,” a traditional European figure who gained traction in the U.S. in the 1950s thanks to Disney’s Tinkerbell and Cinderella. Pop culture helped the Tooth Fairy become a household name, and she’s been a beloved icon ever since.