Informant: “When [my children] were growing up and their teeth fell out, we would tell them to put the tooth under their pillow, and during the night the tooth fairy would come and leave a dollar under their pillow and take the tooth.”
Collector: Where did you first hear about the tooth fairy?
Informant: “Well, I first heard it from my mother when I was little. My mom told me to take the tooth and put it in this little pouch with a picture of a tooth on it, and when I woke up there would be a quarter in there. I guess the tooth fairy has upped the amount of money she gives up nowadays [laughs].”
Collector: Do you know why the tooth fairy wanted teeth?
Informant: “Oh that’s actually a really good question, I’m not really sure… Wow, that’s weird, we’ve been doing this for who knows how long, and no one’s ever asked what she does with the teeth. I guess I just never thought to ask because for me it was always just you wake up and ‘ooh! A Quarter!’ and then not really think about it. I’m not even sure if she actually needed the tooth, I remember one time I actually physically lost my tooth, and I was really bummed because I wouldn’t get my quarter, so my mom told me to put a white bean under my pillow instead, and that was supposed to work because the tooth fairy would think it was a tooth or something. Actually, now that I think about it, I think I remember hearing that she used the teeth to string necklaces or make stars or something like that”
Informant is a middle aged mother of three who lives in the suburbs in the Midwestern United States. She identifies as of “American” heritage, which she bases on her admission that she never particularly looked into her family’s European heritage. The informant’s daughter is a recent college graduate.
Collector Analysis: This particular folklore is actually (in the collector’s opinion) fairly widely spread in the United States, and in fact this collector actually heard a similar story growing up. The most curious aspect of this story is that most of the people who have heard of the tooth fairy have little to no idea why this fairy is collecting teeth. Of course, the experience of losing one’s baby teeth as a child is a nearly universal aspect of human life, and it is quite possible that this story originated as a way to encourage children to report their lost teeth to their parents, who of course would be interested in the dental health and developmental progress of their children. It also may have been meant as a way to encourage children to remove their loose teeth, as it is possible that keeping a loose tooth in one’s mouth for too long could potentially cause health and/or hygiene complications.
I was talking with my friend and I said that I needed to hear a fact straight from the person who said it, and then she said something like, “yeah, you have to hear it from the horse’s mouth.” I inquired what she meant by this, where she had heard it from, etc. This is what she told me.
Informant: “My mom says, ‘I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth’ and that means that you heard it from the person who said it, so it’s authentic.”
Collector: “Do you know why it’s specifically a horse?”
Informant: “I don’t know, but she did grow up around a lot of horses. She grew up on a cattle ranch. And they all rode horses around.”
Collector: “So do you think this is specific to farmer culture or rancher people, rather than city folk?”
Informant: “I think so because you tend to… your language is dependent on your surroundings. You use analogies based on where you live, or on the things that you know”
The informant didn’t know much more about the origins of the proverb, but after some basic online search, I found that thefreedictionary.com offers the following explanation: “this expression alludes to examining a horse’s teeth todetermine its age and hence its worth. [1920s]” As my informant mentioned, this expression probably originated from a culture that was accustomed to being around horses, so its relevance in the future might be questionable.
My informant told me about a time when he was younger, maybe thirteen, and he had a dream about his teeth falling out. In the dream, his teeth began to feel loose and when he touched them they started to all fall out. He remembers being mortified and having a great sense of anxiety; the dream felt very real. When he woke up, he told his grandma, who lived with him. She got angry at him and told him the dream meant he had been telling lies; this was common knowledge in China. He tried to tell her he hadn’t been, but she wouldn’t believe him. His parents didn’t think much of the dream, though, and didn’t think their son had been telling lies.
He said he remembers the incident because the dream felt very real and it had disturbed him. He’d also been very upset to have his grandma angry at him when he felt he hadn’t done anything wrong. I could even see him become uncomfortable as he remembered the event.
I think it’s interesting to see that while his grandma put a lot of stock in this folk belief, his parents, the next generation, did not. This could reflect a changing attitude in the world and show how more recent generations are more apt to side with science and logic rather than trust old folk beliefs and superstitions. I also think it’s interesting to see that losing teeth became symbolic of telling lies, as if the lies had been so caustic that when they exited the mouth, they caused the teeth to fall out. Or maybe losing teeth in the dream was almost like a punishment for lying. I’ve heard the more modern belief that losing teeth in a dream represents a lack of confidence or feeling of insecurity. Because we use teeth to forcefully chew our food, they represent power, and seeing them fall out could reflect a sense that we have lost power in our lives. Another interpretation I’ve heard of the dream is that it indicates a family member will die, though I don’t know how that necessarily relates to teeth falling out, except maybe because people lose their teeth when they grow old and approach death.