Der Struwwelpeter: Or How (Not) toBehave
What happens to someone who doesn't wash, get a haircut, or cut his nails? He naturally becomes "Der Struwwelpeter." What's the secret to the charm of the dirty, unruly boy "born" more than 150 years ago?
How was Peter born?
On Christmas Eve, 1844, Heinrich Hoffman roamed the streets of Frankfurt in search of an entertaining book for his three-year old son, Karl. The books in the stores seemed boring to him, and he objected to the inordinately overt and condescending moral lessons associated with the text. He chose to return home with an empty notebook, in which he wrote funny rhymes flanked by his own simple illustrations, presenting it as a gift to his son. That book became Der Struwwelpeter, one of the best known children’s books in the world.
The juvenile heroes of this book are not just mischievous, they are wild and disobedient. It is surprising that these are the creations of a loving father in search of a gift for his son. Hoffman, a doctor, allayed the fears of the children in his care by means of drawings and funny rhymes. With this book he became a famous author and illustrator of children’s books.
Since then, an endless number and variety of occasionally bizarre versions of Der Struwwelpeter have been published, and the notebook became a national treasure displayed among original manuscripts in the German National Museum in Nuremberg. Wild child Peter became famous around the world, and thus immortal.
Many of the books in the exhibition derive from the Youth Wing’s collection, and some are on loan from private collections. Other books and all of the dolls and objects in the exhibition are on loan through the generosity of the Struwwelpeter Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.
Hoffman drew the original Peter in the notebook that he purchased. Note that some of Peter’s hair is drawn in straight lines or stripes. Only in this version does hair cover Peter’s face, blurring his facial expression.
When looking at the books, it is interesting to note differences among the versions of Peter, but even more interesting to note points of resemblance. For example, you may compare the hair’s appearance in various versions: Is the hair straight or curly? What is the color of the hair? Is the hair unkempt or neatly groomed?
What is the secret of Peter’s charm – the magic that made him a cultural icon? Could the secret of his success lie in his refusal to surrender to the rules of proper conduct? Was it his disobedience, and that of the other unruly children in the book, that made him famous? Is rebelliousness the vital secret ingredient in the recipe that transforms the man into an untamed child?
The presence of the commemorative 100th edition of the book published in 1876 makes that a more pointed question.
In that illustration, Peter takes on a new and celebratory appearance: His hair appears to be washed and clean; his curls are combed (if not cut); and he wears a wreath of flowers on his head.
A sash bearing the number “100” is diagonally draped across his body. Because Peter’s face is not concealed by hair, he may be portrayed with a smile on his lips. (Figure 2)
The important role that hair plays in the design and character of the image is also prominent in the following examples. Unruly hair (nonetheless displayed in an orderly fashion) becomes a symbol of rebellion (while soap and a comb correspondingly express a gradual surrender to rules of conduct).
The best example of this is the image which Struwwelpeter Museum Director Beate Zekorn-von Bebenburg dubs “the classic Afro style.” In the late 19th century, Peter’s image became iconic and remained as it is today, becoming a cultural icon identified with the character. From that moment on, that look became universal: Peter is portrayed with a dense, packed Afro adorning his head like a type of sun; and in contrast with Hoffman’s original version, his hair does not conceal his face – the irate expression of one who refuses to have his hair cut is apparent to all. These identifying symbols combine with long fingernails, a red robe, and green leggings, as well as the frontal stance which showcases these details. (Figure 3)
The book has appeared in a number of versions in Hebrew and in various translations, and the image of the Hebrew-language “Yehoshua Parua,” aka “Shua Parua” or “Yiftach Hamiluchlach (literally, dirty Yiftach),” is not identical in every case.It is noteworthy that the second Hebrew translation, Yiftah Hameluchlach by Uri Sela, 1974, prefers Peter’s appearance as in the original notebook, in which his loose hair covers his face, to the later Afro look
In contrast, the first version published in the 1930s by Taltalim (aptly meaning “curls” in Hebrew) presents a hybrid image, combining Hoffman’s first illustration and the classic image. (Figure 5)
The book remains in print worldwide and in a hardcover edition in Israel, bearing witness to the fact that it is still marketed to its original target audience: the three-to-five year olds for whom Hoffman intended his work.
In addition, there is a Hebrew translation of the German book, "Struwweliese" in which the male Peter becomes a female Liese. It is interesting that the feminine version of the book presents a different picture and an alternate ending to the masculine story. The front cover of the book presents a wild, unkempt, and dirty image, while the back cover depicts a Liese who has changed her face, in every sense of that term. (Figure 6)
Outstanding among the various and peculiar versions of the book is the British version published during World War II, in which Struwwelpeter became Struwwelhitler. This book comprises a political slap-in-the-face and expresses denigration of the Nazi regime. (Figure 7)
While many contemporary versions of the book attempt to temper its messages by turning the characters into animals (Figure 8), the Tiger Lillies’ macabre-cabaret rock musical Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera is extraordinary in its extreme portrayal of the cruelty which many believe is inherent in the book. Despite that cruelty or perhaps because of it, the musical is a hit, and its success bears witness to the relevance of the book in our times. (Figure 9)
The book’s runaway success has always been shadowed by questions as to whether it should be read by children, and whether it is actually counter-educational.Even today, many adults believe that the book is an inappropriate choice for children, and that it is shocking, cruel, and unnecessarily frightening. Others maintain that it humorously illustrates what happens to those who refrain from following rules of behavior, and is therefore a recommended read.
But it is hard to argue with the status of this recalcitrant boy, a universal classic. Certainly, a look at the abundant array of examples around the world links the question of “forbidden” books to the exhibition which examines the place of instructions in our lives…