German physician and author Heinrich Hoffmann (1809–1894) wrote and illustrated the caustic, semiabsurdist tales in Der Struwwelpeter, one of the first children's books to attain mass-market popularity. Cited as one of the earliest efforts in which text and images were coherently arranged, Hoffmann's collection of rhyming cautionary fables first appeared in its German-language original in 1845 and became one of the most enduring works in the youth literary canon.
Heinrich Hoffmann was a respected Frankfurt doctor and clinic director who dabbled in the literary arts under various pseudonyms. Hoffmann's book Der Struwwelpeter—or Shock-headed Peter, in its English translation—was inspired by his frustration as a parent in finding edifying tales to read aloud to his toddler son. His professional career was largely consumed by his duties as director of the Frankfurt's Städtische Anstalt für Irre und Epileptische (“Asylum for Lunatics and Epileptics”), which opened in 1861 and served for decades as a model for the humane, science-based approach to treating sufferers of schizophrenia and other disorders. It would be here in 1901 that Dr. Alois Alzheimer would have his curiosity piqued by a middle-aged patient with a perplexing set of cognitive-decline symptoms with no corresponding physical reason.
Hoffmann was born on June 13, 1809, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, to Marianne (Lausberg) Hoffmann and Philipp Jacob Hoffmann. An architect and urban planner for the city, Philipp struggled with childrearing duties when his wife died the following year, and by 1813 he was married to Marianne's younger sister, Antoinette, whom Hoffmann called Tante Nettchen. Years later, when asked what inspired the tales in Der Struwwelpeter, Hoffmann referred to his preschool years, when he was an unmanageable and disruptive boy whose exasperated father attempted to instill good behavior by warning him of the direst possible outcomes for failing to follow rules.
Philipp Hoffmann's parenting tactics were effective to some degree, for by his early teens Hoffmann was enrolled at the city's oldest college-preparatory academy for boys, the Lessing-Gymnasium on the Fürstenbergerstrasse. The school had already marked the tercentenary of its founding as a Latin-language school by the time Hoffmann began classes there. In 1828 he entered the University of Heidelberg, Germany's oldest university, to begin studies toward a medical degree, which he earned in 1832. A cholera outbreak in the city of Halle provided him his first practical experience as a medical professional, and in 1833 he applied for and was granted a fellowship for further study in Paris to train as a surgeon. This chapter of his life was shortened by his father's declining health and death in 1834, which necessitated Hoffmann's return to Frankfurt.
In 1835 Hoffmann was licensed to practice as a doctor and obstetrician, and he established a practice in the Sachsenhausen district of Frankfurt. He also became involved with a charity clinic on Meisengasse Street, where he spent more than a decade treating the city's indigent. In March of 1840, he married Therese Donner, the daughter of a Frankfurt milliner. The first of their three children, Carl Philipp, was born in 1841. In 1844, the year Hoffmann was appointed to teach anatomy at the Senckenberg Research Institute, the couple welcomed the birth of a daughter, Antonie Caroline. Four years later, the Hoffmanns' second son, Eduard, was born.
Hoffmann began dabbling in literary pursuits as a young doctor; a collection of his poems was published in 1842, and he wrote a comic play, Die Mondzügler (“The Moon-Dragon”) the following year. The earliest version of Der Struwwelpeter surfaced in a handful of stories he wrote for young Carl around 1844. Hoffmann illustrated the collection himself, as producing comical drawings was a side talent he had been finessing almost as long as he had been practicing medicine. He sometimes encountered young patients who were terrified of physicians because their parents had unhelpfully used the threat of a visit as a disciplinary tactic, and he found that he could quickly soothe a crying child by drawing a funny picture.
Der Struwwelpeter was inspired by the dearth of respectable picture books for young readers, as Hoffmann would explain in a preface to a later edition. As a new parent, he had perused booksellers' stalls for appropriate read-aloud material and found little that was instructive or entertaining. The stores offered “stupid collections of pictures, moralizing stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like: ‘The good child must be truthful’ or: ‘children must be kept clean,’” he recalled, according to Barbara Smith Chalou in her book Struwwelpeter: Humor or Horror? 160 Years Later.
In the book's title story, slovenly Peter resists combing his hair and is teased by other children for his frightful appearance. Readers also encounter the cautionary tale “Bad Frederick,” whose young protagonist is abusive to animals and suffers a nasty dog bite as a result. “The Dreadful Story of the Matches” is an even direr tale of a little girl who fails to obey her elders' warnings to not play with stove matches. Fear of amputation is the guiding admonishment in “The Story of the Thumb-Sucker” as Conrad is unable to self-soothe any longer when the scary Tall Tailor catches him in the act. “Snip! Snap! Snip! / the scissors go,” reads this horrific scene, according the English translation, “And Conrad cries out—Oh! Oh! Oh! / Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast, / That both his thumbs are off at last.”
Another literary effort from Hoffmann was linked to his participation in the political crises of 1848, which occurred in multiple cities in Europe. In Frankfurt, it took the form of a new parliament that assembled and demanded a greater political role in local governance as well as that in the surrounding state of Hesse. He served as a deputy to this Frankfurt Vorparlament, a quasi-official legislature, but took the moderate view that a constitutional monarchy would be the ideal structure in German lands. During this period, he drafted several satirical works under the cloak of anonymity, among them Handbuch für Wühler (“Hand-book for Agitators”).
Around this time, Hoffmann's career focus was on new developments in medicine, namely the novel approach to treating psychiatric disorders as signs of a physical disturbance buried in the brain or central nervous system rather than as a failure of moral character. He led a private fundraising effort to replace the abysmal Städtische Anstalt für Irre und Epileptische (a local asylum for epileptics and the mentally ill) with a new, modern building in Frankfurt's less populated Affensteinerfeld district. Known familiarly as the Irrenschloss, or “Mad Castle,” Hoffmann's state-of-the-art hospital boasted indoor plumbing and a restorative, light-filled atmosphere that marked an abrupt shift from standard psychiatric-care facilities of the era. Hoffmann had consulted with its architect and made trips to “nervous disorder” clinics elsewhere in Europe to achieve a restorative interior designed to becalm residents rather than contributing to further agitation. Healthy food, long hydrotherapy sessions, and access to nature were some of the most innovative therapies used at the Irrenschloss. Hoffmann served as its director from 1851 until his retirement in 1888.
Hoffmann was a judicious talent-spotter whose hiring and management practices launched the careers of several notable pioneers in the treatment of psychiatric conditions and neurological disorders. His protégés included Dr. Emil Sioli, the deputy who succeeded him as clinic director in 1888, and who in turn hired the famed doctor who would be immortalized for his discovery of Alzheimer's disease.
After retiring from the clinic in 1888, Hoffmann wrote a volume of memoirs and drafted new versions of his absurdly successful Struwwelpeter stories, fueling its trajectory as one of the oldest continually in-print titles in the history of children's book publishing. His other works included a sequel to Shock-headed Peter that was published in English as Slovenly Peter Reformed, Showing How He Became a Neat Scholar, as well as the “Slovenly Betsy” books. In 1891 American humorist Mark Twain produced a new English translation Slovenly Peter, although this would not be published until the mid-1930s. Hoffmann's famous tales inspired several anti-German parodies in wartime Britain, among them a tract that mocked Kaiser Wilhelm II as Swol-len-headed William during World War I and Struwwelhitler, which mocked the German chancellor whose rise to power in the 1930s ultimately triggered World War II.
“The book is supposed to evoke fairy-tale-like, horrid, and exaggerated ideas,” Hoffmann wrote in his memoir, discussing his best-known work. A young mind “learns simply through the eye, and it only understands that which it sees,” he added. “It does not know anything whatsoever to do with moral prescripts. The warnings—Don't get dirty! Be careful with matches and leave them alone! Behave yourself!—are empty words for the child. But the portrayal of the dirty slob, the burning dress, the inattentive child who has an accident—these scenes explain themselves just through the looking that also brings about the teaching.”
Hoffmann died of a stroke on September 20, 1894, in Frankfurt, predeceased by son Carl for whom he had written his instructive tales and who died in his late twenties in 1868. His other children, Antonie and Eduard, died in 1914 and 1920, respectively, and his wife Therese died in 1911. Struwwelpeter lived on, however, and attained an astonishing cultural afterlife. In the mid-1970s, it inspired modernist-dance choreographers and later became an award-winning dark-comedy musical that ran for years in London and in New York City. Bestselling author Maurice Sendak and children's-book editor Margaret K. McElderry each cited Hoffmann's book as a formative influence on their careers, and a reading of “The Story of the Thumb-Sucker” inspired teen cartoonist Tim Burton to create the drawing of a young man with blades instead of hands that would inspire his 1990 film, Edward Scissorhands. A museum dedicated to Hoffmann, his famous book, and his medical career was established in Frankfurt am Main in 1977.
Chalou, Barbara Smith, Struwwelpeter: Humor or Horror? 160 Years Later, Lexington Books, 2007, p. 9.
Hoffmann, Heinrich, Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures, Frederick Warne, 1911.
New York Public Library website, https://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/05/15/influence-struwwelpete (May 15, 2013), Jack Sherefkin, “The Influence of Struwwelpeter.”
Struwwelpeter Museum website, http://www.struwwelpeter-museum.de (December 21, 2017).□