Childhood home of the Brothers Grimm

Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and his brothers Wilhelm (1786-1859) and Ludwig (1790-1863) lived in Steinau — on what is now called the Brüder-Grimm-Straße (Brothers Grimm Street) — for five years of their childhood, from 1791 to 1796.

In their memoirs, both Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm later described their five years in Steinau as a marvelous, idyllic time — but these idyllic years came to an abrupt end in 1796 when their father died. That meant the family had to move out of the big house in Steinau, because it was an official residence linked to the father’s function as Amtmann, something like a local magistrate appointed by the ruling Count. After that the family lived in more cramped circumstances, and was often short of money.

Later the two older brothers became famous as professors of linguistics and German literature, and especially as the collectors and editors of a large number of folk tales that are now commonly known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales, including such classics as Hänsel and Gretel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood and many others.

Brüder-Grimm-Straße (Brothers Grimm Street) in Steinau

In 1837, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm joined with five of their fellow professors at the University of Göttingen to issue a public protest against the abolition of the liberal constitution of the Kingdom of Hannover (of which Göttingen was then a part) by the new King Ernst August I.  The seven professors, who soon became known as “The Göttingen Seven”, were well aware that they were risking their jobs by issuing such a protest and by refusing to pledge allegiance to the new king, and in fact they were all promptly fired by the University of Göttingen. The Grimm Brothers, unlike their five colleagues, were also exiled from the Kingdom of Hannover on orders of the new king.

The Grimm Brothers soon got new jobs as professors in Kassel and later in Berlin, where their big project was writing the first unabridged dictionary of the German language, including the history and origin of many of the words. They only finished the letters A-F in their lifetimes, but subsequent generations of scholars continued the project, and when it was finally completed in 1960 it had grown to 32 very large volumes. (The Frankfurt University Library has all 32 volumes in its reading room, where I have referred to them occasionally, but more out of curiosity than necessity.)

Entrance hall of the Grimm Brothers’ Museum in Steinau

The Grimm Brothers’ childhood home is now a museum about their lives and work. There are exhibits about the daily life of the Grimm family in Steinau and in nearby Hanau, and about the linguistic and literary research carried out by the two elder brothers Grimm during their careers as university professors.

Exhibits in the museum

Jacob Grimm, in particular, was well known as a historical linguist during his lifetime. In 1822 he formulated a set of correspondences known as Grimm’s Law, which show how certain sounds changed, in a regular way, from the Proto-Indo-European language to the Proto-Germanic in the 1st millennium BC.

As professors the Grimm brothers were among the founders of a then-new course of study at German universities called “Germanistik“. Nowadays we usually translate this as “German language and literature”, but in their day it also included folklore, etymology and dialects. And patriotism.

Reading room and museum display for Grimms’ Fairy Tales

The top floor of the museum is devoted to the Grimms’ most famous project, their collections of fairy and folk tales. When the Grimm brothers were transcribing fairy tales, they thought they were making a collection of purely German folklore, but inadvertently they also included some French tales (like Cendrillon = Cinderella) for the simple reason that some of their informants were the descendants of Huguenots, French Protestants who had emigrated to Germany in the 16th or 17th centuries to escape religious persecution.

Drawings by Ludwig Emil Grimm (1790-1863)

Although the museum is mainly about the two older brothers, it also includes an exhibit of paintings and drawings by the youngest brother, Ludwig Emil Grimm, who was quite well-known in his day as an artist and later as a professor of art history in Kassel.

Kitchen in the Grimms’ house

Virtual tour of the Brothers Grimm museum in Steinau.

My photos in this post are from 2008 and 2011. I revised the text in 2021.

See more posts on Steinau, Germany (coming soon).
See also: A new home for the Huguenots in Friedrichsdorf, Germany.

20 thoughts on “Childhood home of the Brothers Grimm”

  1. The Nazi enlistment of the Brothers Grimm, and anything else that might be of use in underpinning the new nationalism, is well known. These cultural initiatives were driven by Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s director of education and ideology. But at the lower level to Jung’s got off to a rocky start. This from Wolf, A. Higher Education in Nazi Germany; Responding to Fascism: Or Education for World Conquest. Routledge, London, 2010. “The standard of education among Nazi officials, even those who are employed in offices in control of literary works, is appallingly low, as is illustrated by the following incident reported by Mr. W.Deuel. A publisher at Mainz brought out a new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Thereupon the official Nazi Association of Authors sent him the following letter: ‘Your firm has published a work by the Brothers Grimm. These authors are not yet registered with our office, as required by law. We request you to furnish us with their addresses within one week, and at the same time inform us whether the Brothers Grimm are foreign citizens or German authors residing abroad…. Heil Hitler!'”

    1. In the lead photo, I don’t know which parts are really half-timbered and which are just painted on. But I do know that in this region half-timbering went out of fashion in the early 20th century, and lots of half-timbered houses were plastered over to make them look more modern. Later, when the fashion changed back again, some home owners had the plaster removed, which was amazingly hard work (I once did it, but only for a day or two; some workers did it all day every day for months on end).
      In the second photo (the one with the bicycle), the whole house is actually half-timbered, but one side has been covered with grey slate shingles. This is the ‘weather side’, which gets lots of rain, snow and stormy winds that damaged the half-timbering and made upkeep too expensive.

  2. Wonderful! Thank you, I really enjoyed learning about the Brothers Grimm because as a child I had a love/hate relationship with their work but knew absolutely nothing about them until now.

    1. Thanks for your visit and nice comment. The Brothers Grimm were diligent scholars but perhaps a bit naive because they didn’t realize that some of their ‘German’ folk tales actually originated in France.

  3. Nemorino, It is interesting to note the years that the Grimm brothers began to write the first unabridged German dictionary- early 1800’s? Webster published the American English dictionary in 1828 and the Philological Society began work on what is now the Oxford Dictionary in 1857. (A good read on the origins of the English language dictionaries is “The Meaning of Everything” by Simon Winchester) How cool that you are able to reference the full 32 volumes in Frankfurt! Many hours well-spent.

  4. Thank you so much for this page Don! So interesting to read! I used to read the Brother Grimm all the time when I was young and it brought me so much joy. But I hardly knew anything of their lives and background.

  5. The house sounds fascinating, as does their work. Obviously I knew about the fairy tales, but I hadn’t realised the extent of Jacob’s interest in linguistics as well. I’d happily study both those subjects extensively myself (though I’d probably be better off sticking to the linguistics of English since I don’t speak German!).

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment. Yes, the Grimm brothers were famous in their time not only for collecting fairy tales, although that is what they are best known for today.

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