|Heinrich Hoffmann: The Struwwelpeter; Frankfurt am Main: Literary Institute Rütten & Loening, 1917 (400th edition); Copy of the Braunschweig University Library Call number: 2007-0968. Via Wikimedia.|
“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.”
— B.F. Skinner
Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894) was a general practitioner in Frankfurt. When an opening for a physician at the Frankfurt psychiatric hospital was announced, he took the job despite having no particular experience in the field. He apparently taught himself and increased his knowledge through a patient, thoughtful approach, which made him successful in his work.
He wanted to give his three-year-old son Karl a Christmas present in 1844 but could not find a book that he liked. He therefore bought a blank notebook, wrote ten cautionary stories (stories that teach a lesson), and illustrated the work himself. Dr. Hoffmann was no stranger to writing nor to illustrating. He had written some poems and parodies in the past. In addition, he noted that “for mothers and nannies the doctor . . . is a bogey man who scares resistant children . . . Children are frightened and crying when they see the doctor.”1 Because of this he was in the habit of telling stories and drawing pictures for young patients in order to calm them. The book he created for Karl was called Der Struwwelpeter (translated as “Shock-headed Peter,” or “Slovenly Peter”). It presented pedagogic ideas that were norms and values of the German bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century,2 as well as those of middle-class Victorian England.3
Struwwelpeter was in its 540th edition in 1994. It has been translated into more than fifteen languages and has sold 15,000,000 copies.4 The original title mentioned “funny stories and droll pictures . . . for children from three to six years.” What follows are very brief descriptions of the ten stories:
- Struwwelpeter (Slovenly Peter): He does not comb his hair, wash his hands, nor cut his nails. He is avoided by all.
- The Story of Cruel Frederick: He kills birds, tortures kittens, and whips his dog. The dog bites him and Frederick must stay in bed and swallow a “bitter physic” while the dog sits in his chair at table and eats his food.
- The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches: Mamma tells Pauline not to touch the box of matches. Mamma goes out, Pauline plays with the matches, sets herself on fire, and dies.
- The Story of the Inky Boys: Three boys tease and insult a Black boy. St. Nicholas tells them to stop. They do not stop. An enraged St. Nicholas dips them in black ink.
- The Story of the Wild Huntsman: A hunter falls asleep under a tree. The hare takes his glasses and his gun, shoots at him, and misses. The hunter falls into a well.
- The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb: Before Mamma goes out, she reminds Conrad not to suck his thumb or a tailor will come and cut off his thumbs with scissors. Conrad sucks his thumb, the tailor arrives, and cuts off his thumbs.
- The Story of Augustus Who Did Not Have Any Soup: A healthy, plump boy refuses to eat. He becomes weak, pale, and thin. He dies after five days.
- The Story of Fidgety Philip: Philip wriggled and giggled and rocked his chair at dinner. The chair fell and Philip grabbed at the tablecloth, sending everything to the floor. Mamma and Papa became “quite cross.”
- The Story of Johnny Look-in-the-Air: This boy always looks at the sky instead of where he is going. He walks into the river and has to be fished out. He loses his little red schoolbag.
- The Story of Flying Robert: Despite warnings, Robert does not stay inside during a storm. The wind carries him away.
In summary, nine of the ten stories have disobedient children as their subject. Two (Augustus and Pauline) die. One (Robert) disappears, one has his thumbs cut off, and one nearly drowns.
Recent reviewers have suggested that the story of Fidgety Philip is an early description of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and that the story of Augustus who refused to eat is a description of anorexia nervosa.6 Bearing in mind that the observant Dr. Hoffmann worked as a psychiatrist, it is possible that he saw these conditions among his patients. It has also been proposed that Shock-headed Peter had the condition known as uncombable (or unmanageable) hair syndrome7 and Hoffmann’s illustration supports this idea. People with this condition usually have silvery-blond hair. The condition becomes apparent somewhere between three months and twelve years of age and usually resolves by adolescence.
Looking at how these stories were received over time, we see that when Struwwelpeter was written, the book was not considered cruel.8 This was also the era of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. In nineteenth-century America, Hoffmann’s stories were described as being “humorous and didactic”9 and in Great Britain (1900) as “comic.”10 Most modern authors do not share these opinions. The exception is Benita Blessing, who calls the stories “gory yet delightful.”11 Others describe the collection of stories as violent and absurd.12 The cutting off of Conrad’s thumbs has been compared with a castration.13 These “gruesome and morbid stories” also show that it was usual and normal to tell lies to children, and the book should be recognized as “too disturbing for children.”14 The stories are also not “developmentally appropriate for young children”15 (Blessing quoting Barbara Chalou). Hoffmann, we remember, wrote them for three- to six-year-old children. One way to look at Struwwelpeter is as a “compendium of illness, death, and mutilation.”16
The most detailed criticism of Struwwelpeter comes from J.D. Stahl,17 who described the book as a “repulsive example of Germanic harshness and cruelty towards children.” Its hostility to children (Kinderfiendlichkeit) may prove to be “frightening and horrifying to children for generations” and “may inflict long term psychological damage on young readers whose home situation is violent and aggressive.” He thinks that the goal of these stories was “the glorified obedience to arbitrary authority.” Der Struwwelpeter has been adapted as a play, as musicals, films, and parodies. In 1941 a British parody was entitled Struwwelhitler.
- François Mathieu. “L’Immortel Struwwelpeter,” La Revue des Livres pour Enfants, no.161, (1995): 83-90.
- Mathieu. “L’Immortel.”
- Emer O’Sullivan. “‘Anything to me is Sweeter…’” British Translations of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, 62, no.1, (2000): 59-71.
- Mathieu. “L’Immortel.”
- NA. “The Story of Augustus Who did Not Have Any Soup,” filastrocche.it (2006).
- Kjell Knudde. “Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann,” Lambiek Comiclopedia (2020). lambiek.net
- U.H.S. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD)-an NCATS program. “Uncombable Hair Syndrome.” Rarediseases.info.nih.gov
- NA. “Heinrich Hoffmann (author)” Wikipedia.
- John Stahl. “Struwwelpeter and the Development of American Children’s Books,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, 62, no.1, (2000): 31-44.
- Ludovic Fouquet. “Festival d’Automne à Paris: de Nouveaux Horizons,” Jeu,98, no.1, (2001): 137-141.
- Benita Blessing. “Blessing on Chalou, ‘Struwwelpeter: Humor or Horror? 160 Years Later,” H-German HNet (2007). Networks.h-net.org.
- Fouquet. “Festival.”
- Christian Mormont. “Struwwelpeter ou le Plaisir Triomphant.” orbi.uliege.be/bitstream/2268/181640/Struwwelpeter%2020156508160913167.pdf ND.
- Knudde. “Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann.”
- Blessing. “Blessing on Chalou.”
- “Heinrich Hoffmann (author)” Wikipedia.
- J.D. Stahl. “Struwwelpeter.
HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.