When children have been good,
That is, be it understood,
Good at meal-times, good at play,
Good at 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,
Soil their aprons and their frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these shall never look
At this pretty Picture-Book.
In contrast to the promise of pleasure and reward given in the foreword of the book Struwwelpeter, which I just quoted, the book rather is an absolutely horrid book, which has given children nightmares for almost 150 years now. The book, promised as a reward for the good children, shows punishment and horrid consequences of misbehaving. Not exactly what I would like to show to my future (potential) children...
Written by the physician Heinrich Hoffman and published in 1845, it is an interesting look on the morals of raisiing a child in the 19th century, but it is not a children's book. As such, it is just to cruel, far more so than any of Grimm's Fairy Tales. Children get maimed, killed or burned in the most terrifying ways for disobeying their elders in order to get the message across. Even though some of the lessons the book is trying to teach are things children should know or follow (such as warnings about playing with fire, or against racism), the stories try to get children to comply through fear, rather than understanding, and other morals are from times that are thankfully long since past, such as the good old: Children should be seen and not heard school of thought. The funny stories and droll pictures promised in the subtitle are rather cruel stories of mutilation, sickness and death.
However, when the book was written, books for children were dry and boring affairs, so there seems to have been a need for a book like it, making it the first childrens' book in the modern sense. The author himself recounts:
Towards Christmas in the year 1844, when my eldest son was three years old, I went to town with the intention to buy as a present for him a picture book, which should be adapted to the little fellow's powers of comprehension. But what did I find? Long tales, stupid stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like 'the good child must be truthful' or 'children must keep clean' ect. But I lost all patience when I found a folio volume where a bench, a chair, a jug, and many other things were drawn and under each picture neatly written: 'half, a third, or a tenth of the natural size'". A child, for whose amusement you are painting a bench, will think that a real bench; he has not and need not have an idea of the full size of a real bench. The child does not reason abstractly.
That evening I nevertheless brought home a book, and handing it over to my wife, said "There is what you wished for the little one". She took it, calling out rather amazed "Well, that is a note-book with blank leaves" - "Just so, but we are going to make a book out of it". And it happened thus: I was then obliged to practice in town where I was often brought into contact with children. Now it certainly is a difficult thing for a Doctor to make their little ones from 3 to 5 years feel at their ease with him, because when they are in good health, the medical man and the chimney-sweep are very often made bug-bears of. 'My dear, if you are naughty the chimney-sweep will carry you off' or 'Child, if you eat too much, the Doctor will come with his nasty medicine'. The consequence is, that the little angel, when ill, begins to cry violently and to struggle as soon as the physician enters the room. On such occasions a slip of paper and a pencil generally came to my assistance. A story, 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.
Tell a 3-year old kid a story like this and I think he will shut up, too. But Hoffmann somehow manages to distort the reason for their silence: Complete and utter shock!
In this manner most of Struwwelpeter's absurd scenes originated. Some of them were later inventions, sketched in the same impulsive manner, without the least intention on my part of literary fame. The book was bound, put under the Christmas-tree, and the effect on the boy was just what I expected.
The times in which the book was written were revolutionary times. Unrest began growing amongst the general populace, calls for revolution and German unification became louder, culminating the the 1848 revolution. The Struwwelpeter was seen as a symbol of this movement, with the kings and lords of Germany represented by the chaotic Struwwelpeter. In fact, many a times, the political opponent has been labeled as The Struwwelpeter to dehumanize them, or to be used in propaganda, and not only in Germany.
The stories related in the book are:
Die Geschichte vom bösen Friederich / The Story of Cruel Frederick
Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug / The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches
Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben / The Story of the Inky Boys
Die Geschichte von dem wilden Jäger / The Story of the Wild Huntsman
Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher / The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb
Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar / The Story of Augustus who not have any Soup
Die Geschichte vom Zappel-Philipp / The Story of Fidgety Philip
Die Geschichte von Hans Guck-in-die-Luft / The Story of Johnny Look-in-the-Air
Die Geschichte vom fliegenden Robert / The Story of Flying Robert