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Teeth, Rituals, And No Floss About The Tooth Fairy

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Teething rituals date to ancient times, and are first recorded in the Eddas – two 13th century CE Icelandic manuscripts of Norse mythology and skaldic poetry. The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda relate the cosmogony, religion, and history of Scandinavian and Proto-Germanic tribes. In these the earliest recorded writings of Norse and Northern European traditions, which includes the “tand-fe” (“tooth fee”) of adults paying children upon the loss of their first tooth.

Superstitions surrounding children’s teeth were centred on their value in bringing good luck, and why warriors often wore them around their neck for protection during battle.

Teething is a rite of passage: a baby becomes a more independent infant when teeth come in; baby teeth are lost and permanent teeth arrive at the end of childhood. As with any rite of passage, different societies have evolved their own rituals and superstitions. But this particular ritual may be only a century old.

There are many folklores and traditional methods surrounding teeth in their arrival and the process of their loss. Normally there are twenty milk teeth that start permanent teeth replacement around the age 5 or 6.

In the world of witches and curses, tooth disposal was serious business – such was all that could be put upon you by others in possession of a piece of your hair, nail, an eyelash or a tooth.

Unsurprisingly, different cultures had different practices; from throwing the tooth up to the sun, to burying, hiding, swallowing or burning. Feeding it to an animal was popular because of the belief that the permanent teeth would then carry the dental traits of the consuming animal. Strangely, it was usually a mouse and would have to do with strength and durability rather than aesthetics; most certainly dogs and pigs were also included in the tooth swallowing stakes. It was a common belief until as late as 1929; and more often than not, it was only the first tooth that was dispensed of so ritualistically.

Thank goodness for that. Twenty times a ritual is borderline obsession.

Teeth, whether human or animal, are considered good or bad luck, depending on culture and circumstance, and they are collected worldwide.

$US60,000 in 2011 bought the largest T. rex tooth ever found, and set a new record for the most expensive, pre-historic tooth sold at public auction. In 1816 Isaac Newton’s tooth, set in a ring, was bought for the equivalent of $US35,000: four thousand bucks more than John Lennon’s molar brought almost 200 years later. A scurvy-affected canine tooth of an exiled Napoleon fetched $US15,000 in 2005.

Curiously, in 1969, John Lennon married Yoko Ono on the same day Napoleon had instigated the 100 Days Rule in 1815. Both Napoleon and Newton were part of the period of Enlightenment from 1715 to 1789 – who knows what any of that means, but it feels like it could have teeth.

So there are traditions and accepted eccentricities about the importance of teeth and their disposal, and equally, traditions about fairies. In France there is no Tooth Fairy: there is instead the 17th century tradition of the “tooth mouse”. A mouse that rolls a coin or carries a bill as she sneaks into the bedrooms of children who’ve lost a tooth and leaves the money under the pillow in exchange.

In Spain this little tooth mouse is Ratoncito Pérez.

Although fairies and teeth didn’t get together for quite a while, there’s the strong likelihood the tooth mouse was borne of the fairy tale, La Bonne Petite Souris, (The Good Little Mouse) by Baroness d’Aulnoy in which a fairy turns herself into a mouse. In order to help the good queen defeat the evil king, the mouse hides under his pillow to taunt and punish him by knocking out all his teeth.

It sounds like it could be the origin of the Tooth Fairy, but nobody knows for sure.

The Tooth Fairy as we know her, didn’t appear until the early 1900s – a “good fairy” who basically picked a specialty, and slowly gained popularity over the next few decades.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s now famous 1917 hoax the Cottingley Fairies claimed photographic evidence of the existence of fairies, and The Tooth Fairy, a three-act children’s play by Esther Watkins Arnold ten years later would have surely been of some influence. But it wasn’t until 1949 that theatre and screenwriter Lee Rogow seems to have pulled the thing together.

A one-page short story called The Tooth Fairy, written in the same year he co-wrote the screenplay Li’l Abner, was published by Collier’s Weekly on 20 August 1949 and is considered the first story ever written about the Tooth Fairy.

The Tooth Fairy became widely popular from that point on. Parents cheerfully bought into the idea and the constant opportunity she provided to focus on children’s dental health. The ‘80s being the ‘80s, brought merchandising, with special Tooth Fairy pillows, notes, banks, printable receipts and other shamelessly capitalistic junk for the planet to deal with as well as millions of teeth generally flushed down the toilet.

No longer was belief enough – and the “immersive experience” of The Real Tooth Fairy is particularly commercialised with its special treasure chest, outfit, purse and book set.

With all of this, there’s still no consensus on what the Tooth Fairy actually does with all those teeth.

English satirist and author Terry Pratchett in his 2006 book Hogfather suggests they’re collected, neatly labeled and filed away in a museum-like castle of intricate record-keeping and accounting. He claims the Tooth Fairy “carries pliers – if she can’t make change, she has to take an extra tooth on account.”

I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Maybe he didn’t either. I trust he didn’t explain that to any milk-teeth holding kids.

Unlike Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy doesn’t have an address; she doesn’t have helpers, transport, a catch-cry – and sometimes she doesn’t even have capital letters. Not having religious or holiday significance may be what makes the Tooth Fairy so readily and broadly embraced.

The world’s leading Tooth Fairy authority was folklorist, Dr Rosemary S. Wells and Tooth Fairy economist Yale graduate Tad Tuleja. Tuleja closely studied Tooth Fairy prices from 1900 to 1980 against the consumer price index and it was found that she kept up with inflation. In 1990, at an average of almost two bucks, there had been a ten-fold payment increase over 25 years.

Writing in American Folklore, Wells noted the significance of rites of passage for children. Most children start losing their baby teeth around age 5 or 6 when they’re starting school. Wells suggested that the Tooth Fairy softens the scariness of growing up, and from 1993 until her death in 2000, Dr Rosemary Wells maintained a Tooth Fairy museum in her home in Deerfield, Illinois.

Belief in the Tooth Fairy is much more short-lived than it seems; but that’s because there’s money at stake. The last first teeth (heh) aren’t usually gone until age 10 or 11; most kids stop believing around 7 or 8. Both parent and child fully expect the other to play the game.

Whether the Tooth Fairy instils good early-age dental habits, or profit motive and capitalist values is hard to tell. For something they leave under under their pillow, that’s no longer of use and cost them nothing to make, most kids pocket between $2 and $10. However there are reports that some kids find as much as fifty bucks.

A fair price for future dental work if the Tooth Fairy dental health message wasn’t getting through.

Note: All content and media on the Northern Dental Design website and social media channels are created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice.

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