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Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures 

Sorting through more of the books that came to me from my mother, I found a copy of Struwwelpeter. It seems to have been given to one or more of us children in the 1950s by ‘Grandpop’ my father’s father. I have two other editions, an earlier one, perhaps from the ‘20s or ‘30s and a more modern one, published in 1972. 

Struwwelpeter can be translated as shock-haired Peter. It is available today from bookshops, including with joint German/English text. Older editions sell for three figures on the second-hand websites. And an e-book is available on-line from Gutenberg editions.

The History of Struwwelpeter

The oldest of my editions has a page by the author, Dr Heinrich Hoffman, translated as the stories in the book are by an unknown translator. In this introductory note Dr Hoffman describes how the book came to be written. He wanted to find an appropriate picture book for his 3-year-old son for Christmas in 1844. He was very unhappy with what he found in the shops.

Long tales, stupid collections of pictures, moralizing stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like: “the good child must be truthful”, or “children must keep clean”, etc.

At the time Dr Hoffman was the medical man at the lunatic asylum, and often had to see children. He was aware that doctors and chimney sweeps were often used as bogeymen by mothers when they admonish and threaten their children. So to allay their fears he would produce little rhymes and pictures for the children. 

A story, such as you find written here, invented on the spur of the moment, illustrated with a few touches of the pencil and humorously related, will calm the little antagonist, dry his tears and allow the medical man to do his duty.

The ‘pretty stories’ found an instant readership, including in Great Britain. 

The Stories in Struwwelpeter

Each of my three editions contains 12 stories, with titles such as 

  • Cruel Frederick: Fred is bitten by a dog that he was tormenting
  • The Dreadful story of Harriet and the Matches: Harriet played with forbidden matches and was burned to a cinder, leaving only her red shoes
  • The Story of the Inky Boys: the boys who were taunting a ‘Black-a-moor’ got dipped in ink 
  • The Story of the Man that went out Shooting: the man who went shooting found the gun turned on him by the hares

In all these stories naughty people get their comeuppance: the hunter should not have fallen asleep; Harriet didn’t listen to the cats that warned her and so on. 

But the story that freaked me out as a child was The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. Guess what? I was a thumb-sucker all through my childhood. I was in constant fear of the ‘great tall tailor’ with the huge scissors.

One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out now and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off – and then,
You know, they never grow again.”

She leaves, Conrad sucks his thumbs, the great tall tailor comes and ‘Snip! Snap! Snip!’ his thumbs are cut off. His mother returns and finds Conrad looking ‘quite sad’.

“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

Today I am shocked that a mother would go out, knowing her son would suffer this fate, and return and say to the thumbless boy a version of “I told you so!”

Some of the other stories are as moralizing, but with exaggeration, as The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. But few have outcomes as frightening.

  • The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air: although he falls in the river, he ultimately only loses his writing-book
  • Flying Robert: he fails to stay at home in the rain and is blown away with his umbrella, never to be seen again 
  • The Story of Fidgety Philip: he manages to bring the tablecloth, the meal and his own chair down onto the floor, spoiling the family dinner

I was relieved that there was no story about a nail-biter.

While every child likes to see other children getting their just deserts, the spectre of the tailor and his scissors haunted me. As did the exhortation to always be good!

When the children have been good,
That is, be it understood,
Good at meal-times, good at play
Good all night and good all day – 
They shall have the pretty things
Merry Christmas always brings.
Naughty, romping girls and boys
Tear their clothes and make a noise,
Spoil their pinafores and frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these shall never look
At this pretty Picture-book.

And …

Dr Hoffman may have provided some humour and merriness into these stories, but to me they were awfully cruel. I think Dr Hoffman was disingenuous to claim that his stories weren’t moralising, for the sins of these children are just those that annoy their parents and get them nagging their children: thumb-sucking, playing with matches, tormenting animals, laughing at Black children, fidgeting, and not paying attention. I am sure there were other children than me who believed in the fate of these wrong-doers.

I worry that I inflicted this on my daughter. For the newest of my editions was published when she was 4 and I may have bought it for her. She too sucked her thumb, but I never minded, or threatened her with the great tall tailor and his scissors.

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