The tooth fairy (and her gifts!) is something every kid looks forward to. That cliche image of a child with a string attached to her tooth and a door handle, ready to slam the door and win that dollar, is cliche for a reason – a lot of us were actually there! The celebration of this rite of passage – the loss of baby teeth and growth of permanent teeth – can be extremely exciting for a child. But just where did the idea of the tooth fairy come from?
Acknowledging the loss of a tooth has actually been celebrated throughout the centuries, in many different cultures. The Vikings traditionally paid a “tooth fee” to the lucky child, and Medieval Europeans would bury the lost tooth in the ground to hide it from evil witches who would use it to curse the child. However, the exact origins of the woman we now know as the tooth fairy remains unclear.
One of the most viable theories is as Europeans moved across the Atlantic to the New World, this tradition of burying, or “hiding,” lost teeth journeyed with them. And as the traditionally agrarian society transformed into a more urban lifestyle, people in the cities began to abandon the idea of burying the teeth in favor of putting them inside a planter, just outside the door, or on the windowsill.
The actual tooth fairy seems to have made its first appearance in the early 1900s. Depicted as a general “good” fairy with a specific profession, the tooth fairy, and the tradition of leaving the tooth under the pillow, which would be exchanged for a gift, began to be codified. The tooth fairy was a staple of popular culture by the 1920, and was included in the 1927 play The Tooth Fairy by Esther Watkins Arnold and the 1949 children’s book The Tooth Fairy by Lee Rogow.
The popularity of the tooth fairy myth increased in part by a major push in the 1950s to improve the dental hygiene of children. Books, cartoons, and jokes were created to help children understand how to better take care of their teeth, entrenching the role of the tooth fairy in their tooth loss journey. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the tooth fairy was taken over and commercialized, resulting in special tooth fairy pillows, dolls, and other materials.
However you choose to introduce the tooth fairy into your home, this delightful legend has brought joy and delight to millions of children around the world, and can turn the loss of a tooth into an extremely exciting time in the life of a young child.