How One Brutal Children’s Book From 1845 Left Permanent Marks on Pop Culture

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It’s a collection of children’s stories so brutal, it almost outdoes the Brothers Grimm.

The tales of Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman are short, sharp, shocking, and they’ve left a surprisingly deep mark on culture, even though most living Americans have never read them. Today, the astonishing content of Der Struwwelpeter hasn’t only irreversibly impacted children’s literature—its influence can still be seen in movies, cartoons, TV shows, and a wealth of parodies.

‘The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches.’

To give you some idea of the savagery of the 10 stories in the 1845 collection, consider “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches,” about a little girl who accidentally sets herself on fire and burns to death while her pet cats watch. Then there’s “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb,” about a boy named Conrad who refuses to stop sucking his thumbs and subsequently watches them both severed by a creepy, long-legged home-invader.

In between are tales of comeuppance for characters committing surprisingly graphic animal cruelty (“Cruel Frederick”), racist harassment (“The Story of the Inky Boys” is definitely not woke by 2019 standards, but was considered progressive at the time), and the apparent dastardly sin of not watching where you’re going (“The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air”). In others, one little boy refuses to eat soup for a few days and subsequently starves to death, and another insists on going out for a walk in the rain and flies away in a storm, never to be seen again.

Despite the smörgÃ¥sbord of searing imagery in the book, the one that seems to stick most with people is that of “Shock-Headed Peter”—the Der Struwwelpeter of the book’s title. Peter is a little boy publicly humiliated by his own slovenliness. He is depicted as crying and alone “with his nasty hair and hands.” Peter, especially out of context, is pretty damn scary.

Shock-Headed Peter, of ‘Der Struwwelpeter’.

My introduction to Der Struwwelpeter occurred purely because of this image, which I recently encountered on the sixth floor of the San Francisco Public Library, hanging in the SF History room. The panel featuring Peter’s image was created for the library’s 100th anniversary last year, and still regularly causes a stir. One librarian informed me that a woman recently walked into the room, saw Peter, screamed, then shouted “Get that thing out of here!”

It’s a response that might have appalled Heinrich Hoffman. Not only did the German physician originally write the collection for his 3-year-old son, he did so because he wanted his child to have something more light-hearted and humorous than anything else that was available at the time. (Hoffman originally titled the book Funny Stories and Droll Pictures… For Children Ages 3–6.)

In the book Struwwelpeter: Humor or Horror? Barbara Smith Chalou explains:

“Prior to the 1866 publication of Lewis Carroll’s landmark ‘Alice in Wonderland’ … most Western children’s books were limited to instruction manuals, Bible passages, moral fables or cautionary tales … In ‘Der Struwwelpeter,’ we find an intriguing mix of traditional elements with … certain components that were dramatically different than anything previously seen in children’s books. For example, [Hoffman’s] … brightly colored pictures… Nothing resembling this had existed on the market prior to 1845, the date of publication.”

Der Struwwelpeter, then, was one of the world’s first picture books, which is why it quickly warranted 35 translations—one of which was done by Mark Twain in 1891—and helped to permanently transform how children’s entertainment was presented and enjoyed. What’s more, despite the inherent horror, its visuals have proved timeless. Without Der Struwwelpeter’s “The Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting,” in which a hapless hunter has his gun turned on him by a wily hare, there is a good chance that Looney Toons might never have thought to give us a war between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny.

It’s impossible not to see the parallels:

“The Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting” from ‘Der Struwwelpeter.’

Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in a battle of wits. (Looney Tunes)

The dark humor inherent in Der Struwwelpeter is also credited with directly influencing the work of beloved children’s authors including Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket and Maurice Sendak—who once called Der Struwwelpeter “one of the most beautiful books in the world.” When illustrator Bob Staake created his own version in 2006, he said: “When I was given the book as a kid, I didn’t know if it was a joke or not, but my German parents weren’t laughing. The illustrations and stories just creeped me out beyond words.”

Staake isn’t the only one—gothic artists Edward Gorey and Tim Burton are said to be heavily influenced too. When The Tiger Lillies toured their “junk opera,” Shockheaded Peter, in the ’90s, it was the aesthetics of Tim Burton that critics most commonly referenced in order to paint a picture for readers. Is it any wonder when Burton’s Edward Scissorhands bears such a striking resemblance to Shock-Headed Peter?

Edward Scissorhands bears a striking resemblance to Shock-Headed Peter.

The macabre elements of the book have also been repeatedly referenced in both music—Rammstein’s “Hilf Mir” is based on “Harriet and the Matches,” and the XTC track “Scissor Man” is a direct reference to the thumb-severer—and in TV comedy, most notably with references to “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb” showing up Doctor Who, The Office and, most hilariously, Family Guy.

Der Struwwelpeter‘s historical influence runs even deeper. During World War II, the allies used the book to make fun of the Third Reich repeatedly, with one version by Robert and Peter Spence transforming “Struwwelpeter” into “Struwwelhitler,” and “Cruel Frederick” into “Cruel Adolph.”

Another piece of historical satire came in 1975 with Tricky Dick and His Pals, designed to pointedly make a mockery of the Nixon administration. It opens with the lines “Look at this child, so clean and slick. He’s called Obnoxious Tricky Dick! He’d lie and cheat and hit and steal, and wouldn’t care how bad you’d feel,” and stories within the collection see Nixon getting bitten by a dog and shooting himself with his own gun.

L: Robert and Philip Spence’s war-time parody. R: 1974’s ‘Tricky Dick and his pals: Comical stories, all in the manner of Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter’ by Joseph Wortis.

Der Struwwelpeter is still incredibly easy to find today, whether that be in the form of the original book, updated animations that tell the traditional stories, or in the influence it has left behind on other people’s creations. Whether or not it remains appropriate reading for modern-day children remains to be seen, but those that grew up with it are left with vivid memories. “My grandparents had a copy when I was a kid,” KQED’s Senior Social Media Strategist, Carly Severn, recently told me, smile quickly turning to a grimace. “It scared the everloving scheisse out of me.”

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