The 1845 German children’s book Der Struwwelpeter features cruel consequences for bad behaviour, including a terrifying tailor who does not care for thumb-suckers.
Der Struwwelpeter is one of the first illustrated children’s books, but I do not suggest reading it to a child today. Published in 1845 Germany, originally under the title Funny stories and whimsical pictures with 15 beautifully coloured panels for children aged 3–6, it was written and illustrated by the psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann as a gift for his three year old son, and then published so that it could be inflicted on other people’s children too.
The format of the book is simple: here’s a story about a child’s bad behaviour, with some horrific consequences for that behaviour – all lovingly illustrated for maximum trauma.
A little girl plays with matches, catches on fire, and burns to ashes. Her pet cats look on and mourn:
Or a child refuses to eat his dinner and starves to death:
Probably the most disturbing, and certainly one of the most influential, chapters in this book features a kid who will not stop sucking his thumb. He promises his mother that he will stop, but as soon as she steps out he goes right back to sucking that thumb.
Enter a random rogue tailor, affectionately known as the scissorman, who sees the boy sucking his thumb and promptly cuts the thumbs off with giant scissors. A totally reasonable and proportional response to this gravest of childhood sins. The child is left to mourn his deformed hands; the tailor, presumably, still roams the world today.
Der Struwwelpeter has been in print for more than 175 years now. Mark Twain wrote an English translation in 1891. W. H. Auden included scissorman in a 1930 poem. The book has been referenced in Pippi Longstocking and Agatha Christie’s Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. Ballets and operas and graphic novels and films and TV shows and heavy metal music… Der Struwwelpeter casts a long shadow.
I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.