The 19th-Century Book of Horrors That Scared German Kids Into Behaving

Frankfurt, Germany, physician Heinrich Hoffman wrote a book consisting of six children's stories and published it in 1845. The original name of the book is rather wieldy, and it later became known as Struwwelpeter, after one of the characters. These weren't just everyday children's tales. They were designed as a threat! The children misbehaved: they refused to bathe, beat animals, made fun of others, and worst of all, sucked a thumb. The punishment for these transgressions ranged from missing dinner to being stalked by Scissorman.   

The book proved enduringly popular. By 1848 it was already in its sixth edition and had sold more than 20,000 copies. One of the most famous stories is “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb,” a boy named Konrad who was warned not to suck his thumb, lest Scissorman come and cut it off. But he can’t resist. He puts his thumb into his mouth and, lo and behold, the terrifying Scissorman appears and snips off the offending digit. This morbid creature quickly entered the canon, and appeared later in diverse texts such as W.H. Auden’s poetry and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.

There are only four known copies of the first printing of Struwwelpeter, one of which is owned by the New York Public Library's rare book department. But you can see some ten of the 15 pages at Atlas Obscura. Warning: the images might be disturbing to young children, which was the point.

(Image credit: Heinrich Hoffman/Courtesy NYPL, photographed by Samir S. Patel)


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When I was little and not behaving, my Grandmother would tell me she would give me to the Rag Man if I didn't shape up. When I heard the Rag Man coming in his horse drawn wagon, I'd hide in the back yard. Thanks a lot Gram. (-:
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I was born in Germany in 1965 and the book was still a central part of small kid's early socialization. Every child of my family or in general had been confronted with it. The thumbsucker story on its own made the content so absurd, even for a 2-3 year old, that messages like "don't be racist" or "don't hurt animals", which were rather progressive by the time the book was written, and sadly even in 1965, would not come across and all we would remember is that black people are called "n---" and they usually wear a loincloth made of grass. Luckily, the progressive wave of thought of the 70's washed all that away.
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My mom's family had an English version of this book. Mostly the same stories, but the illustrations were different and even more horrifying. There was one about a girl suffering from Pride, and she stuck her nose in the air for such a long period of time that her neck grew several feet. She cold no longer hold it aloft, and had to push it in front of her on a small cart. The Tale of the little girl setting herself on fire when she played with matches was especially grim. Unfortunately, my mom threw the book out because she thought it was too gruesome.
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