The Tooth Mouse — Regency Tooth Fairy

Or Tooth Rat, or even Tooth Squirrel.     Depending upon where you lived.

Should a child loose one of their baby teeth during the Regency, there was as yet no tooth fairy to whisk it from under their pillow during the night, leaving a coin behind, in payment for the tooth. In fact, when it came to the milk teeth of children during the Regency, the concerns which occupied parents were much less mercenary and were focused on the health and well-being of their children.

Even in pre-historic times, when a child shed a baby tooth, at least one if its parents, usually the mother, carefully followed the prescribed ritual of their culture for the disposal of these precious and personal items. If the parent failed to follow these rituals precisely, they were well aware that they put their child at great risk. These practices were bound up with an ancient and world-wide philosophy of sympathetic magic in which it was believed that there was a powerful connection which would persist between a person and any part of their person which might ever have been connected or closely related to them. These separated parts could be as small as nail or hair clippings, or lost teeth. Should anyone with mystical powers gain possession of any of those detached parts, they would be able to gain control, usually malevolent, at any distance, over the person to whom they had once been connected. This particular branch of sympathetic magic was often called contagious magic. No parent was willing to risk the health and well-being of a beloved and defenseless child by failing to dispose of any of their baby teeth in accordance with the traditions of their culture.

The concept of contagious magic with regard to baby teeth persisted for centuries, from ancient times into the early modern age in many cultures, including that of Great Britain during the Regency. The deep-seated superstitions in which lay its origins had influenced human behavior for millennia, but they were slowly loosing their grip by the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, there were still many Regency parents who would take no chances with the health and safety of their children. They took care to ensure each lost milk tooth was disposed of according to tradition in order to protect their little ones from any kind of mystical control or harm.

From at least the seventeenth century, in many parts of Britain, when a child lost a tooth, the mother would sprinkle or rub the tooth with salt while the child who lost the tooth would sing a special song. The pure white crystals of salt were equated with purity and innocence, as well as the power of preservation or protection, which would ward off evil. The song sung by the child was usually a traditional good luck song handed down in the family, or which was common to their community. Once the tooth had been salted and the good luck song was complete, there were a couple of methods for the safe disposal of the tooth. In most cases, the mother threw the tooth into the fire, usually the kitchen fire, which generally burned all day, every day. In some regions, however, the tooth was taken to a meaningful place where it was buried. It might be buried in the garden of the house, but more often, it was buried near the church, or in the churchyard, usually near the grave of a grandparent or other deceased family member who could be trusted to protect it from the predations of evil.

In other regions, typically those with homes or other buildings having thatched roofing, the cast milk tooth was thrown up onto the roof by the child who had lost it. This was done because it was known that mice, and sometimes rats, nested in the thatch of the roof. The intent of this action was to offer the tooth to the resident rodents, for a very specific reason. Most people were well aware that mice and rats could gnaw through almost anything, so their teeth were admired for their strength and longevity. When the child threw their lost tooth up onto the roof, they would implore the mouse to " … take my tooth of bone and give me one of your iron teeth in return." Scholars of human anatomy had actually distinguished bone from tooth material in the seventeenth century, which indicates that this ritual predates that discovery. In areas with enough trees to support a squirrel population, the child might offer their cast milk tooth to a squirrel, creatures also admired for their amazingly strong and durable teeth. This was usually accomplished by throwing the baby tooth into a place which was known to be frequented by squirrels. The assumption was that the chosen rodent would devour the tooth and in return, the tooth’s sympathetic connection to the child would mystically ensure that the tooth which grew in to replace the lost one would be strong and healthy. It was also generally believed that these small rodents were immune to evil spirits, so, in addition to their excellent teeth, they were ideal recipients of a child’s lost milk tooth.

By the last decades of the eighteenth century, these two practices seem to have merged in many areas. Stoves were becoming more common, even in the homes of the middle classes. In many of these homes, when a child lost a milk tooth, their mother would salt the tooth while they sang their good luck song, but once that was done, the child or the mother would throw the tooth behind the stove. In some areas, the tooth had to be thrown by the child, over their head, with their back to the stove. It was assumed that mice lived in or at least frequented the space behind the stove. This area behind the hot stove was also a place where it was believed that evil entities would not have access.

There were other superstitions surrounding the deciduous milk teeth of children. Though all twenty baby teeth should be subject to the appropriate disposal ritual, the first lost tooth, and the first lost molar, were the most powerful, and therefore, must be given the most exacting attention. If a dog or pig should somehow manage to swallow the lost baby tooth, the child’s new tooth would resemble the tooth of the animal who had eaten the lost one. In fact, in some areas, part of the reason to salt the lost tooth was to make it less attractive to those animals. This superstition continued well into the nineteenth century. There is a record of a woman who had served as a maid-servant in her youth who claimed that a boy in the village had a large pig’s tooth in his upper jaw. Both she and the boy believed this was caused because the boy’s mother had thrown one of his baby teeth into the pig trough by accident. In parts of Britain, a superstition had it that if a child’s first tooth came in in the upper jaw, the child was at greater risk of death in infancy.

Folklorists who have studied these rituals and superstitions have found it very difficult to determine with any certainly the exact regions or time periods in which they originated or remained in use. Most speculate that the majority of these practices were in concurrent use around Britain for many decades, each family or community following the ritual in which they had the most faith and/or which was traditional for them. It was also likely that there were many variations of these rituals depending upon the traditions of each family or community. Since in nearly all cases, these rituals were performed by the mother, it is generally believed that she followed the traditions of her family or community. Therefore, these rituals could migrate from region to region when a woman married into a family far from her own home.

By the later Victorian era in Britain, the disposal of cast baby teeth had evolved so that the usual practice was for the child to leave the tooth in some place where it was believed likely that a mouse would pass by it. The "mouse" would then take the tooth and leave behind a small treat, or more rarely, a coin. The tooth fairy did not make her debut until the twentieth century, in America. She was not recorded as being a regular visitor to most homes in the United States until after World War II. However, there are some recorded instances of her visits in the decades before that. In my own family, in the early 1930s, my father and his sister both put their lost baby teeth under their pillows and sometime in the night, the tooth fairy would leave them a coin in return. However, my mother and her siblings knew nothing of the tooth fairy when they were children, though they all followed the tradition with their own children, from the late 1940s on.

In ancient times, the loss of a child’s milk tooth was an important milestone in that child’s life. But it was also a dangerous time for that child, since, if that tooth was not disposed of in such a way to keep it away from evil spirits, that child’s health, or even their life, might be at risk. Those superstitions still had some hold in Regency England and many parents, usually the child’s mother, would conduct their family’s or community’s traditional ritual to destroy the lost tooth in order to safeguard their child. One difference in the practice by the early nineteenth century was that the child who had lost the tooth was usually allowed, or even encouraged, to participate in this ritual. One important side effect of this participation was that it helped to distract the child from the confusion, discomfort and sense of loss when their baby tooth fell out, easing the transition for them. This distraction may be one of the main reasons why the "mouse" myth was perpetuated into the Victorian era. This may also be one of the reasons for the advent of the tooth fairy in America, her expansion to other countries such as Canada and Britain, and her continued place in the culture of childhood in these countries to this day.

So, Dear Regency Authors, should one of the young characters in an upcoming story happen to loose a milk tooth (so called because the primary food for a baby while they were teething was milk), you now know the tooth fairy cannot make an appearance. However, the many variations of the rituals which were practiced at that time to dispose of the lost tooth and protect the child who lost it offer a number of interesting and historically accurate options. Mayhap the mother of the young child wishes to conduct the lost tooth ritual as she knew it as a child, but her overbearing and opinionated mother-in-law demands that it be done in accordance with her instructions. Or, might the forward-thinking mother find such rituals unnecessary, but her extremely superstitions mother-in-law is horrified to think that her young grandchild will not receive adequate protection from evil spirits. A similar conflict could arise between husband and wife, if he is a dedicated man of science and is shocked to learn of his wife’s superstitions upon the loss of their child’s first tooth. How else might the loss of a child’s milk tooth figure in one of your stories?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to The Tooth Mouse — Regency Tooth Fairy

  1. susana says:

    Cool!!! Thanks, Kathryn!

  2. An entertaining post, thank you, Kathryn.
    I can see a plot bunny lurking at a country side house with a small patch of land (for some pigs and hens) of an impoverished genteel family:
    The house belongs to a young widow, B., and her three children, aged 7- 3 years. The kids’ guardian is Mr. W., Esquire, handsome but of rather rough manners and a tendency to be pedantic. When W. visits the widow and his wards, he usually takes more interest in the management of house and land than of the kids, often quarrelling with B. on household economy. B. frequently feels annoyed by W. . Little does B know that W. is in love with her, not knowing how to declare himself.
    One day, W. visits the family again. B. and W. take a walk on the grounds, as W. wants to check on a small pigsty. While they are there, the second child, young D., runs up to them, proudly presenting a milk tooth he has just lost. While B. asks W. to admire the tooth of young D., the tooth somehow manages to slip from her hands and falls in the pigsty. Two curious pigs approach it. Young D. cries out in horror: If the pigs would find the tooth and eat it, he would have pig-tooth! Help!! Much to everybody’s surprise, W. rises to the occasion, jumps in the pigsty and rescues the tooth from pigs and mud. Though he gets dirty all over, he seems to have enjoyed the exercise and B. notices for the first time how well W., (assisting young D. in offering the rescued tooth to the tooth mouse) can handle kids and how very kind his rare smile is…. (up to happy end…)

  3. How nice! and of course she will offer to wash his clothes and may catch a glimpse of him wearing just his shirt as he hands them out of the room where he strips off…

    I may use this in my Renaissance series where [as far as I’ve written] a lad in the family has just been breeched, a little early. My heroine, his stepmother, is impatient with superstition, but may go along with it to please other family members. And as I shall be having a particularly young orphan in the series I’m now starting to write [more details http://sarahs-history-place.blogspot.co.uk/%5D that might be something to bring in.

    I have to say that the habit some parents have of keeping baby teeth is rather ghastly and borders on the macabre in my opinion…
    I wonder how in earlier times my situation would be viewed? I had rheumatic fever as my adult teeth were forming in my gums and when I lost my milk teeth, many of my adult teeth came through bad because of the re-absorption of calcium [a well known phenomenon of rheumatic fever in the later period, but I have no idea when it was known from. I’m guessing it would have been noted by the Regency, in fact I’ve used it in a Pride and Prejudice fanwork to cover Anne de Bourgh’s sickly constitution, from heart trouble, and failure to smile, just in case anyone saw her teeth.]
    A divergence but one that might be relevant… I suspect that as the age of 5-7 is around the time when a child has a better chance of survival to adulthood if they get that far, the custom around the milk teeth might, like breeching, be bound up in the acknowledgement that this child has every chance now of reaching adulthood, since in first and second stage demographic transition the highest death rate is in infancy.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The washing of the clothes adds a nice little naughty bit! 😉

      As far as keeping baby teeth, especially in Europe, I discovered that there were some cultures in which the baby teeth were kept by the mother, again, to keep them from evil spirits. In some places, the teeth were given back to the child when they became an adult. There are a few places in the Caribbean where the teeth are gold or silver plated and made into some form of jewelry, usually a necklace or bracelet, which was given to the child when they became an adult. I have to say, the more I read about the customs and superstitions which surround baby teeth, the more astounded I became. The power of superstition is quite amazing!!

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Pingback: The ubiquitous myth of the Tooth Mouse | golpo

  5. elfahearn says:

    Fascinating post, Kathryn, as usual. What I find really interesting is that many cultures shared the same belief in “sympathetic magic,” though they may have had no contact with one another. The infant mortality rate was so high, I suppose, that mothers were willing to attach reasons for losing their little ones to just about anything. A poll of mothers today would probably show similar superstitions–for example–the myth that immunization causes autism.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Glad you liked it. The concept of sympathetic magic seems to be almost ubiquitous, as it appears in one form or another in nearly every culture dating back to ancient times, and quite probably even into pre-historic times. I think most mothers would do just about anything to protect their children, and would probably gain some small measure of relief if they could ascribed even part of the blame at the loss of a child to some supernatural force. Though I doubt anything could really ease their pain.

      Regards,

      Kat

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