According to author Michael Hingston, “Every recorded human culture has some kind of tradition surrounding the disposal of a child’s lost baby teeth.” Worldwide, these practices have been remarkably diverse.
From the Tooth Mouse customs of numerous cultures, to the Pakistani ritual of tossing baby teeth into the river, to the throwing of teeth at the sun in Middle Eastern countries, to our own beloved American legend of the Tooth Fairy, there’s no shortage of lore when it comes to the way the world deals with baby teeth. Today, we’ll examine the history of the Tooth Fairy and other similar traditions around the world.
While the Tooth Fairy’s origins are debatable, most agree her roots are grounded in the traditions of other countries, which later combined to form the Fairy of today using a sprinkle of 1940s and 50’s Disney magic. But how did it all happen, and how has the Tooth Fairy tradition evolved into modern-day?
The combination of several early European traditions may have given an early nod to our modern-day Tooth Fairy. There’s the old British custom of giving servant girls ‘fairy coins’ as they slept, as well as the Irish practice of leaving a tooth near a sleeping child as a way of protecting them by fooling the evil ‘changelings.’ Additionally, the French once told of the Virgin Mary leaving presents or coins under children’s pillows in exchange for their baby teeth.
Following these traditions, American folklorists Tad Tuleja and Rosemary Wells explain more recent developments on the subject. Although the earliest written mention of the Tooth Fairy was made in 1927 during a three-act children’s play by the same name, Tuleja noted that it wasn’t until shortly after World War II that she became widely known in the United States. This required the mixture of a renewed economy with what Tuleja refers to as a new “romanticization of childhood” (or a greater tendency to nurture or “cater” to one’s children), and Disney’s popular Pinocchio and Cinderella movies being released during this time.
Some agree that the Tooth Fairy and the Fairy Godmother of Disney’s Cinderella were closely related in their wish-granting and magical qualities, which further endeared the Fairy to the American family with children. Others aren’t sure of the significance of that connection, but however she got there, the Tooth Fairy is firmly grounded in the culture of America and not expected to fade away anytime soon. But why does she still have such an appeal after all these years?
From the days of Cinderella and Pinocchio to today’s bustling, tech-driven communities, America has changed in many ways. One example stands out: the fees for lost teeth. Between the years 1900 and 1975, lost teeth could earn between 12 cents to 85 cents each. Now, according to the Original Tooth Fairy Poll of 2019, conducted on behalf of Delta Dental Plans Association, the Tooth Fairy currently leaves about $3.70 per tooth in the United States (with other sources estimating closer to $5.40 per tooth) - not too shabby considering the meager coins of her past.
If you’re afraid you’ll forget about the Tooth Fairy’s visit or fear she may not leave the proper amount, there are always free apps you can download. One fun example is the Call Tooth Fairy Voicemail Game, with which kids can call and “leave the Tooth Fairy a message” -- like a reminder that a tooth will be under the pillow shortly, or the directions to a new home address. There are also plenty of fun resources, like this adorable Tooth Fairy Receipt and Certificate.
As mentioned earlier, the American Tooth Fairy is only one tradition among the many in the world. Some are far more fascinating and long-standing than ours. Let’s take a tour of the baby tooth-related rituals, customs, and traditions of the rest of the world:
France, Spain, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Russia, Scotland, and New Zealand
While no other countries have a custom exactly like our Tooth Fairy, the aforementioned Tooth Mouse is close in likeness. The French version, called La Petite Souris, or ‘little mouse’, is a speedy, sneaky little rodent who dives underneath pillows to grab the teeth of children in exchange for money or sweet treats.
Spain has its own variety of Tooth Mouse called Perez, Ratoncito Perez, Raton Perez, El Raton Miguelito, Perez Mouse, or El Raton de los Dientes. In Scotland, he is called The Scottish White Fairy Mouse. This friendly rodent with multiple names can be found collecting baby teeth and leaving coins not only in Spain, but also in Russia, New Zealand, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Chile.
Some families in these countries leave the tooth out for the Tooth Mouse, while others leave it out simply for any mouse, a rat, or other animals like squirrels, cats, dogs, and beavers -- anything that could inspire the child’s teeth to grow in as strong as the animal’s own.
Instead of trading the teeth for cash in Argentina, Perez finds the children left him a tooth in a full glass of water, or in a small box. If it’s the former, he drinks the water and keeps the teeth. If it’s the box, he takes the tooth. Turns out you can explore the history of this tooth-saving hero by visiting the Ratoncito Perez museum of Madrid.
Several cultures practice traditions of throwing baby teeth once they come out. Some of them include:
The Middle East
Middle Eastern countries like Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq throw their baby teeth at the sun, hoping this will allow the new teeth to appear ASAP, with increased fortitude. Some say this practice dates back to the 1200s.
The Japanese also throw their teeth but, in this case, they throw bottom baby teeth upward in the air while top teeth are thrown straight at the ground. This is to mimic and encourage the natural growth of new teeth.
In Pakistan, children’s baby teeth are wrapped in cotton at sunset and thrown in the river for good luck.
Botswana, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam
In numerous countries like these, lost baby teeth are thrown either on the roof, under the beds, or beneath the floorboards. The location chosen has to do with whether the top or bottom teeth fell out, and whether an animal is likely to come to take the tooth or not (it is hoped that they will). These decisions are made with hopes new teeth will develop quickly.
Burying baby teeth is a tradition practiced in numerous European countries. It is believed to be beneficial in helping children grow healthy future teeth.
Children bury their lost baby teeth in secret locations to hide them from animals that might want to steal them -- it’s considered ‘bad luck’ if an animal gets your tooth.
This culture buries the children’s baby teeth in a mouse hole. The mouse is expected to help the child grow strong teeth in return.
In this country, children also bury lost baby teeth, but here it’s done as a burial to return the tooth to nature. Since part of the body belongs to the earth, it must be protected from birds that might eat it. They also believed a bird eating the tooth might prevent a new tooth from growing.
In this country, parents will bury a child’s baby teeth wherever they hope the child will grow up to thrive, i.e. if they are football fans and want their child to excel at football, they might bury the teeth in a football field.
This is done in several countries, usually with the goal of the animal helping the child’s teeth to grow in as strong as their own. Here are a couple of examples:
In Kyrgyzstan, baby teeth are wrapped in bread and fed to mice. This is done in the hopes that the child’s new teeth will grow in as strong as the mouse’s teeth.
In Mongolia, the child’s tooth is placed in animal fat and fed to a dog. If there is no dog in the household or nearby, the tooth can be buried near a tree -- so the new tooth can have strong roots.
As you can see, there are an impressive number of ways people around the world celebrate the loss of their children’s baby teeth, including our own American Tooth Fairy legend. Some are more elaborate than others, but all of them involve a tradition the parent and child engage in together -- usually with heart-warming results to last a lifetime. According to parenting expert and author Susan Newman, customs like these can contribute to a lasting parent-child bond since, what “you’re doing is building a child’s memory bank with warm recollections of growing up.”
If you want to read more about some fascinating cultural traditions with baby teeth, we have included a few interesting reads below. We hope you enjoyed reading about these interesting traditions and would love to hear how your family celebrates lost baby teeth!
At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry & Orthodontics, we strive to provide the highest comprehensive pediatric and orthodontic dental care in a unique, fun-filled environment staffed by a team of caring, energetic professionals. We believe the establishment of a “dental home” at an early age is the key to a lifetime of positive visits to the dentist.
“Where Did The Tooth Fairy Come From?” By Kristina Killgrove. Forbes Magazine, www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/09/14/where-did-the-tooth-fairy-come-from/#3d77344859d4.
“The Tooth Fairy Is a Very Recent, Very American Creation.” By: Colin Schultz, Smithsonian.com, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/origins-tooth-fairy-180949746/.
“Tooth Fairy or Tooth Mouse? 4 Legends from around the World | CBC Kids.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, www.cbc.ca/kidscbc2/the-feed/tooth-fairy-or-tooth-mouse-4-legends-from-around-the-world.