As featured in The Irish Times Magazine, Saturday April 26th 2008.
Child discipline is a subject that’s preoccupied humanity ever since Kane and Abel started giving their parents lip. For the Victorians, it was never too early to start teaching children how to behave. Very few cautionary tales have carried as much potency as ‘Struwwelpeter’.
This extraordinary book is the work of a 19th century doctor from Germany. As a young father, Dr. Heinrich Hoffman had grown weary of all the existing children’s books on sale in his native Frankfurt. His 3-year-old son Carl had no interest in these pious morality tales. Dr. Hoffman took up his sketchpad. His beautiful, graphic and downright creepy illustrations have since been carved upon the sub-conscious of anyone who has seen them.
‘Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures’ consists of ten short stories, told in rhyming verse. The title story concerns ‘Shockheaded Peter’ (‘Struwwelpeter’ in German), a seriously unkempt young boy whose fingernails inspired Tim Burton’s ‘Edward Scissorhands’. Budding pyromaniacs are urged to consider ‘The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches’ where the eponymous gal strikes a flame only to be burnt to cinders. ‘O take the nasty soup away!’ repeats the once chubby Augustus as he fades into his grave over four short verses. In a bizarre warning against racial intolerance, three youngsters are plunged into an ink vat for taunting a black man.
However, for many, the most outstanding of Hoffman’s creations must be the Long Red Legged Scissor Man. Should this horrific individual catch a child sucking a thumb, he will snip off the guilty thumb quick as a flash. Little Johnny Suck-a-Thumb is warned about this before his mother heads out to dinner. But …
‘Mamma had scarcely turned her back,
The thumb was in, Alack! Alack!’
The first 1500 editions of ‘Struwwelpeter’ hit the shelves in 1845 and sold out within weeks. By 1847, it was being translated into English. As for Hoffman, he went on to spend nearly forty years as director of the state mental hospital in Frankfurt, during which time he greatly improved the psychiatric treatment of his patients.
In terms of teaching Irish children how to behave, Struwwelpeter’s ‘Be good or die’ philosophy may be a little harsh. But I was brought up on Struwwelpeter and I never sucked my thumb.
© 2008 The Irish Times