While there are various explanations of the origins of fairies and the character of them and their lands, there is little explanation in any studies of where the modern conception of winged fairies has come from.
None of the books suggest that fairies have wings like dragonflies or butterflies. The wee-folk of Celtic mythology are generally thought to be the size of small children or dwarfs, instead of the size of insects as they are thought of today.They also tend to be suitably disproportionate, like chunky hobbits or dwarfs instead of the tiny but perfect adult fairies in modern storybooks. It is likely that these modern depictions of fairies sprang more from the minds of individual humans than any specific culture or mythology.
For almost as long as people have been seeing fairies, people have been writing about them. The countries of the world have a wide variety of myths and legends, but the “little people” crop up in a great many of them. Into more modern times, we have Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen”, and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers Night’s Dream” in Elizabethan times, both of which did much to cement the modern conception of what a “fairy” is.
A wide variety of cultures believe in fairies similar to the Celtic version, and some cultures see fairies as the animistic spirits of character. None of these fairies bear much resemblance to the modern fairies and if they had wings, it is a detail that is usually left out. Spencer’s fairies were like the Celtic version, Shakespeare’s were like a combination of tall elegant elves and the wee-folk, but it was not until the Victorian era that fairies were established as little winged beings.
Thomas Croker (1789-1854) in his collection of Irish Fairy Tales, described fairies as being “a few inches high, airy and almost transparent in body; so delicate in their form that a dew drop, when they chance to dance on it, trembles, indeed, but never breaks.”
One of the first of these “delicate” fairies to impinge on popular consciousness was probably Tinkerbell in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Around that time, there was also a large amount of sentimental art, creating cutesy portrayals of fairies and cherubs. There was also a large fuss made about the fairy photographs taken by two young girls in England at Cottingsley. These photographs sparked a world-wide argue that did much to “fix” the image of the small, winged, fairy in the public mind, and if you ask any group of people, there’ll no doubt be someone who remembers seeing the pictures at some time. The Victorians had a soft identify for the “cute”, and much of the modern conception of the little delicate, insect size fairy came from them.
Disney also has a part to play from the 1950s onward, pushing the sanitised Tinkerbell as a sort of happy go-lucky character sprite, making fairies happy and unthreatening, strengthened already more by having Julia Roberts play her in the live action version.
From these images people have come to see fairies as a happy, positive, image… a far cry from the baby-stealing wee folk of Celtic mythology from which they derived.