Tooth Fairy

Tooth Fairy
   When a child loses one of its milk *teeth, this is put in a safe place (usually under the child's pillow, but sometimes in an egg-cup or under a carpet), and the child is told that *fairies will take it in the night, and leave a coin instead - or actually turn it into a coin. Between the wars, this was generally a *silver threepenny piece, and when these were withdrawn in the 1940s, some families still insisted on using them. A contributor to FLS News (15 (1992), 11) wrote: 'We kept a small stock of silver threepenny pieces specially for the occasion, always reclaiming them from the children and recompensing them. They always maintained that the silver coin was far superior to their schoolfriends, who maybe received 6d.' Nowadays, the money given has increased to 50p or even Ј1.
   The only folklorists who have mentioned this custom in print are the Opies, who noted it as widespread in the 1950s (Opie and Opie, 1959: 305); however, many people still living can bear witness that it was common in the 1920s, which makes it probable that it was known in the previous century. There is an allusion in Kenneth Graham's The Golden Age (1898: 133) to older boys being customarily tipped half a crown when a tooth is extracted by a dentist, which is a related idea.
   There is one early source which links fairies and children's teeth, namely Robert *Herrick's poem on 'Oberon's Palace' (1648); he describes this as a grotto adorned with various small and useless objects from the human world, 'brought hither by the elves' -
   . . . and for to pave The excellency of this Cave, Squirrils and childrens teeth late shed Are neatly here enchequered With brownest Toadstones, and the gum That shines upon the blewer Plum, The nails faln off by Whit-flaws: Art's Wise hand enchasing here those warts Which we to others (from ourselves) Sell, and brought hither by the Elves. (Hesperides (1648), no. 444)
   Herrick's poem matches half the modern tale, namely that fairies collect shed teeth; the other half, the money left in exchange, may have grown out of the old belief that fairies will reward a hard-working servant by leaving sixpence in her shoe at night, a gift presumably placed there secretly by her employer; the child too is being rewarded, for being brave and not making a fuss.
   Up to the 1950s, the tooth-takers were generally referred to as 'fairies', in the plural, but now people more often speak of the Tooth Fairy, possibly under American influence. A retired dental nurse in Lincolnshire recalls how 'We kept special tiny envelopes for children to take their teeth home in for the tooth fairy; I used to write on the envelope "For the fairy".' Unfortunately, this memory is not specifically dated; from the context, it could be from the 1940s (Sutton, 1992: 125). The fantasy can become more elaborate; in letters to the Guardian in October 1988, parents said that when their children asked why fairies wanted human teeth, they replied that it was to make bricks for their houses, or to carve them into toys and ornaments - much the same notion as Herrick had (FLS News 14 (1992), 4; 15 (1992), 11-12).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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