Legends of lost teeth: A word on European mice with sharp teeth, Dr. Rosemary S. Wells and Tooth Fairy Barbie

Ever wonder where the legend of the Tooth Fairy comes from? You know, the little entity that takes away a baby tooth and exchanges it for money or a small gift? Are Americans the only people with a crazy ritual to mark the loss of a primary tooth? Apparently not!

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Illustration from an antique children’s book. Image in the public domain/ Free Vintage Illustrations.

It seems many countries and peoples have legends and observances regarding the loss of a primary tooth. Most involve 1. the tooth, 2. an action, 3. prayers to an animal known for its strong teeth, to ensure the adult teeth grow in strongly. For instance, in some American Indian cultures, the child (or the adult) was instructed to throw the tooth in a certain direction, then run around the house four times, all the while reciting, “Beaver, put a new tooth in my jaw.” Other American Indian groups directed the child to bury the tooth at the entrance to the lodge.

My, what sharp teeth you have

Many European cultures associated the mouse with good dentistry, due to its sharp teeth, so there were many customs linking the mouse with expired deciduous teeth. They involved people throwing the baby tooth over their shoulders, out a window, or out of the house. At the same time, a request was made of the mouse to replace it with a stronger tooth. In France, the child was directed to throw the tooth under the bed for the mouse to eat and then replace with a new, strong one.

So how does this mutate into the Tooth Fairy?

By the late 19th century, the French ritual evolved so that the mouse no longer replaced the tooth with a new one, but instead exchanged it for a small gift or coin. French children left the tooth in their shoes and the little mouse exchanged it overnight. From here, the ritual crossed the Atlantic and in the early 20th century, the mouse morphed into a good fairy in America.

Fascinated with fairies

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Image in the public domain/Free Vintage Illustrations.

In the early 20th century, America and Britain were fascinated by the thought of fairies, with artists and writers discovering anew the mystery and enchantment. Why shouldn’t a fairy bring gifts to young children suffering the trauma of a lost tooth?

The Tooth Fairy seems to be a wholly American invention, first appearing in print in a children’s play in 1927. The legend existed some time before that, as its inclusion in the play meant the public was familiar with the concept.

By the middle of the 20th century, with the popularity of Disney, fairies became an accepted component of childhood.

The Tooth Fairy has Dr. Rosemary S. Wells to thank

A retired dental professor even created a museum (now closed) in her home, collecting all manner of memorabilia related to the Tooth Fairy. Dr. Rosemary S. Wells operated the Tooth Fairy Museum in Deerfield, Illinois, starting in 1993. Information can be found about it here. She was considered the foremost authority on the Tooth Fairy until her death in 2000.

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Most cultures still associate an animal with a fond farewell to baby teeth, but Americans look to the Tooth Fairy. She’s such an enshrined part of American culture, that in 1994 the Mattel toy company created a Tooth Fairy Barbie (above).

If that’s not the ultimate sign of celebrity status, then what is?

About the blogger

Guest blogger Jenn Ochman, Database Publishing Production Specialist in the Branding and Communication Department at Benco Dental, dedicates her time outside work to historical reenactment. She shares knowledge of dental history with TheDailyFloss.com readers on a monthly basis.

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