Der Struwwelpeter or Slovenly Peter by Heinrich Hoffman
Upon first glance at Heinrich Hoffman's iconic work, Der Struwwelpeter, one would certainly miss the Christmas tie-in. In 1844, the Frankfurt physician was disappointed with the books available for children. He was looking for a book for his first born child, Carl, who was three years old. Hoffman was a psychiatrist by training, and he found the abstract presentations and the didacticism presented in books to be inappropriate for young children. Rather than purchase an unsatisfactory book, he bought a blank notebook, deciding to write his own book (Lapides).
Hoffman had honed his skills as a storyteller by distracting frightened young patients. He commented, "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" (Burns 125). As a result, he was confident of his ability to engage his son's attentions.
Hoffman completed the book in 1845, comprised of five lyrical stories and a shorter poem titled "Struwwelpeter," and each tale was accompanied by comical pen and ink drawings. The handmade book was extremely popular with his family and friends, and Hoffman agreed to publish the book in 1845.
"Struwwelpeter" translates into English as "Peter in disarray." "Slovenly Peter" is the common English title to the poem. The image is of a boy with exceedingly long fingernails that he never cuts, and a head of wild hair. Children were to find the appearance of Peter disgusting, encouraging them to cut their hair and keep their nails cut.
The five stories included in Hoffman's book are "Naughty Frederick," which tells of a boy who mistreats everything from flies to birds to kittens and his dog. "Naughty Frederick" takes a whip and beats his dog until the dog finally turns on him and bites him. Frederick is sent to bed and is given nasty medicine while his dog sits in Frederick's chair and eats Frederick's "sup." Following "Naughty Frederick" is "The Story of the Inky Boys," in which St. Nicholas warns three boys about laughing at a black boy walking by. The boys ignore the warning, and they themselves are dunked in St. Nicholas' inkwell and turned into silhouettes.
The third story is "The Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting." This story tells of a man who hunts hares, and he finds it difficult to see without his glasses. The hare hides from the hunter until the hunter falls asleep. The hare tiptoes up to the hunter and takes his spectacles and his gun. When the man wakes up, he sees the hare pointing his own shot gun at him, using the man's own spectacles to aim. Realizing impending danger, the man runs for his life. The hare shoots just as the man dives into his well, and the hare misses her mark. It's hard to guess Hoffman's meaning with this tale. Some scholars write of his distaste for hunting animals.
"The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb" tells the story of a little boy whose mother is going on an errand, and she warns him of the "great tall tailor" who will cut off the thumbs of boys who suck their thumbs. Of course, the boy pops his thumb into his mouth the moment his mother is gone, and the tailor comes and snips off his thumbs.
The final story of the original six entries is "The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup." The story begins with Augustus, the "chubby lad." He did as he was told and ate his soup every day. One day, however, he demands that the soup be taken away. Even though Augustus begins to grow lean, he refuses to eat his soup day after day, and he shrinks to nothing. On the fifth day he is dead!
Hoffman's work remains one of the most significant works in children's literature. His name is often linked with the Grimm Brothers' as one of the most influential individuals in the history of children's literature. Though his stories seem to contain a certain amount of didacticism, the contents of his stories possess humor, something entirely foreign to children's literature at the time.
The image presented here is from the copy published by John Winston in Philadelphia in the 1880's. The illustrations are hand-colored in order to look more like the original. The de Grummond Collection possesses five copies of Slovenly Peter as well as seven copies of der Struwwelpeter, dating as early as an 1876 edition in German. For more information, contact Ellen Ruffin at or 601.266.6543. To see more Items of the Month, click here.
Lapides, Linda F. Slovenly Peter: A Collector's Encounters with an Enduring Classic of Children's Literature. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries, 2006.
Hoffman, Heinrich. Struwwelpeter: in English Translation. Toronto: Dover Publications, 1995.
Burns, Tom. "Struwwelpeter." Children's Literature Review (122) 2007.
Text by Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection