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Every recorded human culture has some kind of tradition surrounding the disposal of a child’s lost baby teeth, and in the 1960s, a researcher named B. Townend distilled these rituals down to nine basic forms (as summarized by Wells in her 1991 essay “The Making of an Icon”):(1) the tooth was thrown into the sun; (2) thrown into the fire; (3) thrown between the legs; (4) thrown onto or over the roof of the house, often with an invocation to some animal or individual; (5) placed in a mouse hole near the stove or hearth or offered to some other animal; (6) buried; (7) hidden where animals could not get it; (8) placed in a tree or on a wall; and (9) swallowed by the mother, child or animal. Perhaps the most widely practiced ritual, one that has been documented everywhere from Russia to New Zealand to Mexico, involves offering the lost tooth as a sacrifice to a mouse or rat, in the hopes that the child’s adult teeth will grow in as strong and sturdy as the rodent’s — a wish for transference that anthropologists call “sympathetic magic.” This offering is often accompanied by a specific prayer or song, and, in a pinch, any strong-toothed animal will do.Leo Kanner’s “Folklore of the Teeth,” from 1928, records similar ceremonies involving cats, dogs, squirrels and beavers.But it is the mouse that remains the predominant animal-dental mascot, even to this day.In many countries around the world, children continue to leave teeth out in the hopes that a mouse will come take them away in exchange for money or some other gift.
Most cultures exhibit a particular configuration or style.“We should have at our fingertips answers to all dentally related questions.But in this area we have nothing.”Around the same time, a professor at nearby Northwestern University Dental School named Rosemary Wells found herself similarly baffled.For French children, this is La Petite Souris, who appears in French folktales as early as the 17th century.In several Spanish-speaking nations, it’s Ratóncito Pérez.
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Despite the seeming timelessness of the character, the tooth fairy is in fact an extremely recent arrival on the mythological scene.