Winter 2009–2010

Leftovers / Where Do Teeth Go?

Out of the mouths of babes

Helen Denise Polson

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

I got my first wiggly tooth when I was six, and the sensation of it is still with me. You feel a slight twinge as the concrete firmness at the root begins to dissolve; your tongue notices a difference, a little movement, and won’t let it alone. Then, as the tooth worms free, a space seems to open up inside your gum and the whole business starts to behave like a tiny hinge in your mouth. Agitate it gently. Unless you employ some rougher, pre-emptive measure against it, the tooth will come out without much pain. I shed my first baby tooth at school, where the school dental nurse bundled it in cotton wool and tied it into a small sheet of gauze so it resembled a tiny ghost. I wore it proudly like a pendant around my neck for the rest of the day. When I got home, my mother put the tooth in a glass of water on the kitchen windowsill and it waited there until, sometime that night, the tooth fairy came and exchanged it for a thick New Zealand fifty-cent piece.

Milk teeth with and without their roots. The one on the left was accidentally knocked out and shows the full root. The one on the right fell out as a part of the natural process by which milk teeth are replaced by adult teeth. Once the permanent tooth is sufficiently developed, the root of the milk tooth is gradually resorbed, the tooth becomes wobbly and it falls out. It is then replaced by the permanent tooth. Courtesy Wellcome Photo Library.

Children sometimes object to parting with their teeth and refuse the tooth fairy, insisting instead that their tooth be stored somewhere safe. Like people worried about witchcraft, they feel this way too about other disposable parts: hair, nail clippings, even old scabs can seem precious—or dangerous—enough to hoard. The prospect of stockpiling what is essentially a mound of your own personal dirt is disturbing, yet abandoning these little pieces of our bodies to the world has consequences too. As every forensic detective show reminds us, we leave something of ourselves behind wherever we go: skin, spit, semen (and it rarely comes out in the wash). Our cells are now scattered over continents, our old nail clippings incinerated or in landfills. Andrew Niccol’s film Gattaca takes our anxiety about this dispersion even further, introducing the prospect of living in a world where any hair, any cell, any little lost fragment of yourself might be used against you. The film’s main characters practice elaborate rituals of disposal to prevent their detritus from being detected, and devise intricate misdirections to create counterfeit genetic trails. Nevertheless, we mostly just let the stuff go, let it disperse and disintegrate. This is as it should be. Most of what we lose is quickly replenished by our bodies and will rot away once it has been shed. Our teeth are different.

Imagine a time-lapse film of a child’s smile as it transforms. Babyhood recedes as each baby tooth appears, then disappears as childhood advances, each tooth a gap to be replaced by a larger adult tooth. Given the vastly different conditions under which human children are raised, the timing of the process of tooth growth and loss is remarkably universal, a biological consistency that serves to illustrate just how inconsistent cultural and historical classifications of childhood are. (English labor laws once prohibited the employment of young workers before the eruption of their second permanent molar at approximately nine years of age. This “factory tooth” was a more accurate and verifiable index of age than patchy birth records could hope to provide.[1]) The growth of children’s teeth also underpins some of our most beloved fantasies about childhood. In his great mythology of Edwardian childhood, Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie signals Peter’s tenacious childhood by describing him as still having all his first teeth.[2] Peter’s child-smile assures us that he will never grow up. This image isn’t one of preserved innocence: Peter “gnashes his pretty teeth with joy” at the pirates during a battle, underscoring the difference between inexhaustible youth and weary adulthood.[3] But his enduring baby teeth also represent something darker. To hover motionless in time as Peter does, spying through windows at other children growing ever older, is to defy death itself—something Peter does repeatedly throughout Barrie’s play. Unlike the sugary Disney film into which it has been transformed, Barrie’s original story can barely contain the specter of death in the midst of youth.[4] When Peter describes how he tumbled undetected from his pram in the middle of Hyde Park and was taken into the company of fairies, we understand too that this story stands in for another, more ominous story: though we might delight in Peter’s enduring childhood, we understand that to never grow up is to die. And so, even as each new gap marks the ineluctable passing of childhood, we celebrate the loss of baby teeth.

When it leaves the mouth, the tooth itself also undergoes a transformation from a vital piece of a living body into a dead object. The tooth fairy ritual helps children understand this change by saying goodbye to their tooth with a ceremony that celebrates and reanimates it by imbuing it with a magic—and a value—beyond the mouth. The conjuring trick that the mouth performs as a tooth disappears is mirrored in the tooth fairy’s own sleight of hand as she exchanges tooth for coin.[5]

Our tooth fairy is a relatively new addition to the cohort of familiar fairies. She seems to have first appeared sometime late in the nineteenth century, but her beat has expanded quickly throughout the Western world.[6] She is not like other fairies: they are tricksy and alluring little creatures whose capers inevitably end nastily for us, but the tooth fairy is gentle and generous—no tricks, no pinching, no potions. Unlike the sickly changelings fairies are said to exchange for human babies, we seem to get the best of our dealings with the tooth fairy: not just a coin but also a new tooth. She does not require prayers or incantations, your good behavior, or sweet offerings to lure her into service. She simply takes away your lost teeth and leaves you a little gift of money. 

Somewhere between my first lost tooth and my last, I stopped believing in the tooth fairy, but this did not end the tooth-fairy ritual. My final offering to her was quite a haul, the result of a bad time at the dentist preparing my small mouth for braces. Along with a generous glass of cash, she left me a note saying that a “little bird” told her how brave I had been. This particular bird often had the ear of my mother, and I knew that this was really her apology for the painful extractions. The money was just money, indistinguishable from the other coins in my piggybank. But I still have the note. I don’t ever remember being curious about what the tooth fairy might want with my teeth. You are not supposed to wonder where your teeth go, only celebrate their departure. This habit of thought is so ingrained that even when I no longer believed, I still didn’t wonder where my teeth were going. Researching this point, I recently asked the tooth fairy where she had put my teeth. She sighed and said she threw them in the trash. 

A dentist examining a child’s teeth, New Orleans, ca. 1942–1943. Courtesy Library of Congress.

This seems like a sad end for something that used to be such an important part of my body. While they are in our mouths we know our teeth with such extraordinary intimacy that even a slight change, such as a chip, can be a constant distraction until the tongue gets used to it. And yet we say goodbye to them without a thought as to where they will end up: whether they are kept indefinitely, hoarded for a while and then discarded, or immediately disposed of, tooth-fairy teeth, like most other teeth, probably end up in landfills or incinerators. In this respect, they are indeed trash—useless, excess to requirement, and a little bit disgusting, fit only to molder away with the rest of the stuff we no longer wish to think about. But it has not always been so. As social historian Susan Strasser has noted, nothing is inherently trash; it is designated so by a process of sorting and categorization that shifts with the identity and whim of the sorter.[7] In fact, even teeth have at times had a life outside of the garbage heap. Once upon a time, the poor sold their teeth to the rich, the tooth-drawer ripping a tooth from one jaw to transplant it freshly into another. Teeth from cadavers have also been used to make dentures, a practice that found such a reliable source on the battlefield that false teeth were for a while known as “Waterloo teeth.” The American Civil War was also the hunting grounds for tooth “resurrectionists” who shipped their wares back to England in barrels.[8]

Of course, teeth—children’s or adults’— are no longer recycled, and one function of the tooth fairy ritual is to disguise for the child the true destination of teeth today. Other traditions of tooth disposal are more upfront about the final destination of baby teeth. They are buried in the garden, thrown into the fire with a sprinkling of salt, thrown down wells and into water, and even swallowed. Other rituals avoid disposal entirely: baby teeth, or even teeth lost as an adult, are made into ornaments or jewelry or carefully collected to be buried with their owners when they die. (A letter to the journal Folklore in 1894 tells the story of a request by a Cornwall woman, “old Fanny,” who wanted all her lost teeth to be buried with her as she “firmly believed that her resurrection body would not be perfect without the teeth.”[9] Common explanations for tooth burning or hoarding include the worry that malevolent people (perhaps even those pesky fairies) may get hold of them, and the fear that unless the teeth are kept and disposed of properly, the person will have to search for them after death. Such traditions appear to precede the introduction of Christianity to Europe; collections of baby teeth have been found with prehistoric cremated adult remains in Britain. Implicit in this practice is the notion that teeth remain an essential part of us even after they are shed, even after our death. In fact, teeth are an integral part of us especially in death, so firm in their grip that they remain attached to the skull even when the flesh has rotted away.

With all the meaning they accrue—youth, death, transformation, time, and timelessness—your little lost teeth are very potent symbols of bodily resurrection, and may actually be a source of bodily regeneration, as they contain relatively young stem cells. Songtao Shi, a research scientist at the University of Southern California, first considered this possibility as he rinsed off his six-year-old daughter’s lost baby tooth for the tooth fairy. Shi calls the cells he extracts from baby teeth SHED: Stem cells from Human Exfoliated Deciduous teeth. Not only did he get these cells to grow but, planted under the skin of immunosuppressed mice, they induced bone growth, generated neural cells, and triggered fat cells.[10] It seems that there is at least one good reason to hold on to baby teeth.

What about the teeth we lose—or those that are taken from us—as adults? In the last century, the discovery of anesthetics and the invention of reliable, attractive dentures have made tooth removal a more appealing prospect. Billions of teeth have been shed, uprooted, and clear-felled to make way for new porcelain and metal edifices.[11] My dentist informs me that adults almost never ask to see their extracted teeth, let alone take them home. Despite their fancy-sounding name, wisdom teeth do not attract an adult-sized bounty from the tooth fairy. He incinerates them with the rest of the medical waste.

One of the many purported sets of George Washington’s dentures. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Notwithstanding such hygienic procedures, many of the teeth we have lost must remain. Basically, teeth are nerve encased in bone covered in hard enamel, so they last like the skeleton does, only better. Though most live out their long lives out of sight, a few are still in public circulation: George Washington, for example, everyone’s favorite edentulate, left his last lonely tooth in the care of his dentist John Greenlaw as a kind of keepsake. Greenlaw made and fitted many of Washington’s sets of false teeth (none of which were wood) and the two shared a lively written correspondence on the woes that wearing the dentures gave Washington. The tooth itself is now the most popular treasure of the Rare Book Collection of the New York Academy of Medicine.[12] It is Washington’s lower left pre-molar, intact and white except for one tiny brown spot. After apparently carrying it around in his pocket, Greenlaw had a small glass-and-metal case made for it so it could hang like a little charm from his watch chain. They are exhibited together with the first lower denture Greenlaw made for Washington, crafted from hippopotamus ivory and a collection of human teeth, one of which may well have been Washington’s. These things are strange curios: not very beautiful or scientifically valuable, just ordinary little fragments of a man and his life, an excuse for his story to be told. If there can be such a thing, they are secular relics, both unsettling and compelling in their realness, inviting us to conjure up a connection between us and their original owner. 

In rare cases, the tales conjured by such relics are shaped and amplified by the real scientific value that attaches to them. Greek scientists, for instance, recently used pulp extracted from teeth recovered from a mass burial site in the ancient Kerameikos cemetery to determine that a plague described by Thucydides as ravaging Athens between 430 BC and 426 BC was actually by an ancient strain of Salmonella enterica serova Typhi, or typhoid fever.[13] Meanwhile in another graveyard, this one in Campeche, Mexico, the skeletal remains of four people were found with evidence that they were unlikely to have been born in Mesoamerica. Their teeth provided two clues to the puzzle of origin: they were diagonally filed down in a pattern characteristic of West Africa during the sixteenth century and the enamel of the teeth contained a particular ratio of isotopes consistent with those of people born around the port of Elmina in what is now Ghana, in West Africa, suggesting that these four were slaves, perhaps among the first representatives of the forced African diaspora in the Americas.[14] And, in perhaps the most extraordinary discovery of recent years, a fossilized skeleton of an early hominid was found in 2000 in Dikika, Ethiopia, with an almost complete set of teeth.[15] Identified as a member of Australopithicus afaresis, one of the forebears of Homo sapiens, the skeleton was found via CT scanning to contain unerupted adult incisors, canines, premolars, and molars waiting high in the gums for their moment to emerge. Comparing its tooth dimensions and development with other Australopithecus afarensis remains and with Pan troglodytes and Homo sapiens—modern-day chimpanzees and humans—researchers inferred age and sex. She was a little girl, just three years old, when she died around 3.3 million years ago. Exhibiting both ape- and human-like characteristics, she no longer has fierce canines, though the large chewing teeth typical of the ape remain.

But beyond the enormous scientific significance of this discovery, I see in the commentary about the find, especially in the discussion of her teeth, a sense of connection with this fossilized skeleton—with her—that makes me want to think and write about her. I recognize this impulse is related to myth, that great sleight of hand we must use to fill up the empty glass of history with things that seem more natural, more concrete and real and present to us. Roland Barthes too, in his Mythologies, characterizes myth as a “conjuring trick,” a web of artifacts and beliefs that turns reality inside out; empties it of history, and fills it up instead with nature. For him, the function of myth is just such a “ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence.”[16] When we think of our first lost tooth, we remember again what such an absence felt like, how it began, strange and unnerving at first, a dangerous taste of blood on the tongue, and then later the thrill and promise of the gifts that might replace it. If baby teeth show us anything, it is that these gaps of nature and of history, which we make even as we fill them, must be filled in this way, with only empty artifice, and hope, and forgetfulness.

  1. Frank Spencer, History of Physical Anthropology (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997).

  2. J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1928). So much of the character of this play is contained in Barrie’s gorgeous little asides to the reader which communicate the spirit and humor of the intended action more than stage directions could. Here, Peter and the Lost Boys face off with the pirates: “Peter. (Who still has all his baby teeth.) Boys, lam into those pirates!” (Barrie, p. 86). Peter’s chief adversary, Captain Hook, is literally hunted by time and teeth in the form of a crocodile (remember: never smile at one) who has swallowed his hand (hence the hook) and also his pocket-watch, which ticks inexhaustibly, warning Hook of the crocodile’s presence and thus his own mortality. Hands, like adult teeth, don’t generally grow back.

  3. Ibid., p. 87.
  4. Many people have pointed out that Barrie’s play provides a grim foreboding of the Great War which would claim the lives of too many of the little boys who delighted in it, and one of those who inspired it. Peter famously pronounces: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” (Barrie, p. 91). This line was removed from staged versions of the play in the later stages of the war.

  5. Anthropologist Cindy Dell Clark argues that one of the functions of the tooth-fairy ritual is to reassure children who worry that their baby teeth might not be replaced by adult teeth, as well as to assuage the trauma of tooth loss. Losing one’s teeth is a very common fear, and not just among children, as Freud noted. However, tooth loss may soon be reversible: researchers, led by Etsuko Ikeda from the Tokyo University of Science, have grown fully functional replacement teeth in adult mice by implanting them with a bioengineered tooth germ. See Ikeda et al., “Fully Functional Bioengineered Tooth Replacement as an Organ Replacement Therapy,” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, vol. 106, no. 32 (11 August 2009).
  6. There is some debate about the origins of the tooth fairy, with some collectors of folklore suggesting that she is European and others American. See Wayland D. Hand, “European Fairy Lore in the New World,” Folklore, vol. 92, no. 2 (1981), pp. 141–148.

  7. Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999).

  8. For this and many other disturbing tales from the history of dentures, see John Woodforde, The Strange Story of False Teeth (New York: Universe Books, 1968).

  9. Rosamond Venning, Folklore, vol. 5, no. 4 (December 1894), p. 343.

  10. See Laura Wright, “Potent Stem Cells Found in Baby Teeth,” Scientific American, vol. 288, no. 4 (23 April 2003).

  11. In fact, during the last century, false teeth became such an appealing prospect that people in countries like Britain and New Zealand seem to have preferred them to natural teeth, which were seen as little more than a source of inevitable pain, an outdated nuisance that had been rightly surpassed by ingenious technology. Novelist Janet Frame remarked of this tendency that “the general opinion in New Zealand then [in 1946] was that natural teeth were best removed anyway, it was a kind of colonial squandering, like the needless uprooting of forests.” Frame, An Angel at My Table [1984] (New York: George Braziller, 1991), p. 202.
  12. The tooth is enough of a celebrity in its own right that you need to make an appointment to view it.
  13. Manolis J. Papagrigorakis, Christos Yapijakis, Philippos N. Synodinos, and Effie Baziotopoulou-Valavani, “DNA Examination of Ancient Dental Pulp Incriminates Typhoid Fever as a Probable Cause of the Plague of Athens,” International Journal of Infectious Diseases, vol. 10, no. 3 (May 2006), pp. 206–214.

  14. See T. Douglas Price, Vera Tiesler, and James H. Burton, “Early African Diaspora in Colonial Campeche, Mexico: Strontium Isotopic Evidence,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 130, no. 4 (August 2006), pp. 485–490.

  15. Zeresenay Alemseged, Fred Spoor, William H. Kimbel, René Bobe, Denis Geraads, Denne Reed, and Jonathan G. Wynn, “A Juvenile Early Hominid Skeleton from Dikika, Ethiopia,” Nature, vol. 443, no. 7109 (September 2006), pp. 296–301.

  16. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972), pp. 142–143.

Helen Denise Polson is a lecturer in expository writing at New York University, where she is currently completing a PhD in the Department of Performance Studies.

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