21 March 2010

The cautionary tale of Pauline and the Matches

Lewis Lapham explains:
German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann wanted to read his kids to sleep with a storybook that was both entertaining and instructional, so he wrote and illustrated the first edition of what was to become Der Struwwelpeter, a picture book of moralizing fairy tales where the children don’t always meet happy endings.
Here's an excerpt:
Now, on the table close at hand,
A box of matches chanced to stand,
And kind Mamma and Nurse had told her,
That if she touched them they would scold her;
But Pauline said, "Oh, what a pity!
For, when they burn, it is so pretty...

When Minz and Maunz, the little cats, saw this,
They said, "Oh, naughty, naughty Miss!"
And stretched their claws,
And raised their paws;
"Tis very, very wrong, you know;
Me-ow, me-o, me-ow, me-o!
You will be burnt if you do so,
our mother has forbidden you, you know. "

Now see! oh! see, what a dreadful thing
The fire has caught her apron-string;
Her apron burns, her arms, her hair;
She burns all over, everywhere...

So she was burnt with all her clothes,
And arms and hands, and eyes and nose;
Till she had nothing more to lose
Except her little scarlet shoes;
And nothing else but these was found
Among her ashes on the ground.
For the rest of the text, visit Lapham's Quarterly (which has LOTS of interesting stuff).

Image credit to Omega's photostream.

Addendum: A hat tip to Keith, who found a muscial version of the poem.


  1. Those books of that era are horrible. My mom (being German) had some of those books in a cabinet and I found them once and they gave me nightmares. Pictures of little children with their fingers chopped off (with someone with scissors) and blood squirting out of the stumps. horrible stuff for children.

  2. I had this when I was a kid, remember it well, and with pleasure, not horror. I guess my parents must have been careful to make clear when they read it to me that it wasn't to be taken seriously. I loved the pictures!

    Not sure what the English title was on the book, but we called it "Stribbly Peter." "Stribbly" was the family word for messy hair. Pennsylvania Dutch, maybe? Either that or Yiddish. It's cognate with "Struwwel."

  3. I used to read this on visits to my grandfather when I was 5 or so. It had been my mother's book in the 1920s and he had kept all their toys.
    The fingers (or rather thumbs) were cut from Little Johnny Suckathumb who lost them as just and righteous punishment for his evil thumb-sucking ways.
    And yes, lots of squirting blood and scorched children, I was fascinated by it...

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  5. Someone made a junk opera musical of these called Shockheaded Peter. Very cool!

  6. Shockheaded Peter is by the great band the Tiger Lilies. Saw their show a couple years back and it was really great. If you like the book, you'd probably like their album of songs based on it.

  7. What a lovely way to put the kiddies to bed. Some psychiatrist, that guy. Oy.

  8. I have this book and LOVE it! A lot...stouter...than what most in the US are used to, but probably effective as a deterrent to children.

    Love it, love it, love it.

    Especially the one about the stuck-up child who walked with his nose in the air and ended walking into a canal he did not see and drowned...

    Love it.

  9. I have been involved with the professional theatre my whole life, Stan, and a play called "Shockheaded Peter" that featured a castrati singer and was based on the Hoffman stories was one of the best I have ever seen in my life. It was a musical and fabulously staged and acted. Brilliant!!


  10. The band Rammstein used the first verse (maybe more) of the original text you see in the picture, in their song 'Hilf Mir' :).


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