The Tooth Fairy in Ireland and Around the World
First off, I’d have to say that I’ve never actually met the Tooth Fairy. I have had transactions with the Tooth Fairy as a small child, but I was asleep at the time and have no actual memory of it. But like many kids, when my baby teeth fell out I’d leave them under my pillow at night and when I woke up the next day the tooth was gone and the Tooth Fairy had left me a gift of some money. I’d like to be able to say it wasn’t spent on sweets, but there is a distinct possibility that it was.
The training involved in being an orthodontist is pretty long – 5 years of dental school as an undergraduate, some more time in general dentistry after you qualify, then some post graduate exams (that usually takes a minimum of about 3 years after becoming a dentist) and then another 3 years of specialist orthodontic training and in all that time, you don’t get any formal lectures about Tooth Fairies, so I have had to look into this a bit harder than usual dental research.
I still don’t even know if the Tooth Fairy is a he or a she. This doesn’t really matter. The Medical Journal of Australia (2017) takes it for granted that the Tooth Fairy is a girl. Having been to Australia, I am not sure if their perspective on gender roles would be the same as Ireland and many other countries. There’s a writer called Rosemary Wells who did some research into what the Tooth Fairy looks like, and it looks like about three-quarters of Americans think it’s a girl and only 3% think it’s a guy.
Probably the other most famous fairy of all time is Tinkerbell out of Peter Pan, who was played by Julia Roberts in the movie Hook. All the Disney fairies that I can think of are women – Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and Flora, Fauna and Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty. William Shakespeare wrote a play about fairies – Midsummer Night’s Dream (which was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw) and the fairies have a king, Oberon, and queen, Titania. In the movie Rise of the Guardians, the Tooth Fairy is a girl fairy called Toothiana, but called Tooth for simplicity. On the other hand, Dwayne Johnson – The Rock – does a stint as a Tooth Fairy in the actual Tooth Fairy movie, along with a few other fairies played by Stephen Marchant (Ricky Gervais’ colleague on several of his shows) and Billy Crystal and Seth MacFarlane so it’s quite possible for fairies, and even Tooth Fairies, to be guys as well as girls.
Where do fairies in general come from? In Peter Pan and Little White Bird by JM Barrie, it’s explained that when the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a million pieces and they went skipping around and became fairies. Fairies are, for most of the time very secretive – either actually invisible or just very good at hiding themselves (they are very small after all), because you just don’t see them about even though they’re around quite a bit.
Some of them – according to the Irish poet WB Yeats, who did a lot of research into the matter – are solitary and operate by themselves most of the time, while others move around in processions - trooping fairies. I’m not sure which variety the Tooth Fairy falls into – I’d always presumed the Tooth Fairy worked alone but the movie shows a team of them under the direction of a head fairy (not unreasonably played by Julie Andrews). There’s also a type of fairy described by Katherine Briggs, who wrote the most authoritative books on English fairies, called domestic fairies – a bit like the house elves in the Harry Potter stories – but given the Tooth Fairy’s extensive travels around the country, I doubt the Tooth Fairy was ever cut out for that kind of a job.
Fairies can be a bit mischievous – they might cause havoc in Peter Pan stories – or downright dangerous. In Scottish fairy stories these varieties of fairies are described as “seelie” or “unseelie” respectively. I’d expect the Tooth Fairy to be in the first category, as there are no recorded instances of a tooth being removed by the Tooth Fairy before it was time to fall out. Though David Walliams did write a book called Demon Dentist where one of my colleagues gets up to no good and interferes with the Tooth Fairy’s work and probably gets the poor fairy a bad name.
Australian research (2017) showed no relation between Tooth Fairy visits and dental attendance – in fact there appears to be no alliances between the Tooth Fairy and the Dental Profession as a whole – which is important as we can get into trouble if our treatment decisions aren’t scientifically based. In Ireland, dentistry is regulated by The Dental Council of Ireland and there are no cases on their records of dentists receiving money from, or paying money to, a Tooth Fairy for providing a particular course of treatment to a child.
The Tooth Fairy has been working for centuries - certainly there’s documentary evidence of the tooth fairy at work in Scandanavia around 1200AD.
What does the Tooth Fairy pay?
This varies considerably! Most research is done in the USA, and I’ve seen it as about US $0.12 in 1900, $0.80 per tooth in the mid-1980s, $1.00 in 1990 and it was about $3 in 2012 – and a bit less in the UK the same year, £1.50 (BMJ 2013). The Medical Journal of Australia (2017) reports that Tooth Fairy gifts tend to be inflation linked and that year in Switzerland the Tooth Fairy (occasionally in league with a Tooth Mouse) was paying about CHF 7.20 per tooth (which was about US$7.20 at the time).
An American author on healthy eating for children called Vicki Lansky advised that the Tooth Fairy should pay more for healthy teeth that fall out naturally, and less for decayed ones. This is sound advice but I don’t know if the Tooth Fairy has taken it on board. We do know from the Australian research that the Tooth Fairy pays more to children of mothers who didn’t go to university.
I did some calculation on this. There are about 60,000 children born every year in Ireland. They have about 20 baby teeth each and start losing them from about age 6-7 and they would usually be gone by age 12-13. They don’t all fall out at a constant rate, but for easy figures, let’s say it’s about 3.33 per child per year:
60,000 X 3.33 = 200,000 teeth per year approximately
200,000/365 = 548 teeth that need to be dealt with every night- and that’s just in Ireland. Tooth Fairies have to cover the USA and the UK as well (but not as many other countries as you’d think….see below).
Clearly the Tooth Fairy is not as busy as Santa, but they don’t really get a day off. He gets 364 days off. More in a leap year.
So I can understand if not every child gets a visit from the Tooth Fairy.
What does the Tooth Fairy do with the teeth?
We don’t know. Actually in about 30% of cases, the Tooth Fairy doesn’t actually take the tooth, they just leave a gift for the child. In about 40% of the cases they take the teeth, and they tend to visit boys more than girls.
I have had enough mad ideas about what happens to teeth that have been removed to last me until I retire and that might end up being another blog some time.
Does the Tooth Fairy visit everywhere?
I used to work with an orthodontist from Chile and in most Spanish speaking countries, and a lot of other places in Europe too, the Tooth Fairy leaves this work to a Tooth Mouse called Ratón Perez. I might do another blog about the mouse!