As kids, most of us received money from the tooth fairy whenever we lost a tooth. Few of us, however, know about the history of the tooth fairy tradition.
The tradition of the tooth fairy began centuries ago in Europe. A child’s first lost tooth was buried in the ground to keep witches from stealing the tooth and using it to cast spells on the child; burying the tooth also ensured the growth of a new tooth in its place.
Children have twenty “baby teeth” and start to lose them around age five or six—around the time they begin going to school. In most cultures this is considered a rite of passage, a sign that the child is growing up. The loss of teeth can be scary and painful for kids, and the tooth fairy helps to soften the blow.
The tooth fairy we now know in the United States emerged in the early 1900s, when the lost baby tooth was placed under a child’s pillow and in its place money appeared. Initially the tooth fairy appeared only after the loss of the first tooth, but as the tradition became more popular the tooth fairy visited a child each time a tooth was lost, until the child stopped believing—after age seven for most children.
The first children’s story written about the tooth fairy—“The Tooth Fairy”, by Lee Rogow, was published in 1949 and the tradition really caught on. By the 1950s, the concept of the tooth fairy began to grow, and more books, cartoons and jokes about the tooth fairy appeared.
In the 1980s the tooth fairy enjoyed a resurgence; during that decade several tooth fairy commercial products became available. One of the most popular was a tooth fairy pillow, with a pocket sewn on the outside to store the tooth and receive the money.
Rosemary Wells, known as the world's leading tooth fairy authority, studied the price paid for teeth from 1900 to 1980 and compared it to the consumer price index. She found that the tooth fairy kept up with inflation. In 2013, the reward left varies by country and the family's economic status, among other factors, but a 2013 survey by Visa Inc. found that American children receive $3.70 per tooth on average.