A classic among children’s books, who hasn’t heard of or seen images of “Struwwelpeter” (or “Shockheaded Peter” as he’s called in English)? Peter refuses to wash, comb his hair or cut his nails and is therefore not the most popular of boys, the moral being of course that if you look after yourself, people will like you.Composed and drawn by Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894), a doctor and writer, in response to the perceived need for good children’s stories, Struwwelpeter made his first public appearance in 1845 as one of Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder, published by Verlag Rütten und Loening in Frankfurt am Main. The collection proved to be hugely popular and Hoffmann apparently insisted volumes being issued with a weaker spine so that parents had to replace the copies worn out by their children’s excessive reading. The second edition, published in 1846, was extended with five more illustrations. By 1858 the title of the collection had changed to Struwwelpeter and the collection had reached its final form with ten stories in total. The eponymous wayward boy was put on the front cover.
The Lustige Geschichten mostly feature children who for some misdemeanour or social quirk come to a sticky end – I was reminded of Edward Gorey’s macabre alphabet Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), although only a few of Hoffmann’s children actually die, while the punishment for non-normative behaviour follows immediately from the transgression committed by the erring child. Gorey’s alphabet is firmly tongue-in-cheek and the unfortunate children die from random causes.The earliest English translation appeared around 1848, going to about fifty editions before the end of the century. There are two editions of the English Struwwelpeter in the collection of Sudbury’s Museum of Childhood. One is on display in the galleries and one is currently in the stores. The latter copy is based on the ’19th German edition’ and it is likely to have been printed before 1858, when Peter’s appearance was slightly changed to what it still is in modern editions.