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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.