The Butchered Children’s Book

Friedrich Justin Bertuch: Bilderbuch für Kinder, enthaltend: eine angenehme Sammlung von Thieren, Pflanzen, Blumen, Früchten, Mineralien, Trachten, und allerhand andern unterrichtenden Gegenständen aus dem Reiche der Natur, der Künste und Wissenschaften (…), 3 volumes.

Unlicensed, modified reprint, published in Rumburg 1806


Childhood was invented in the late 18th century. Children were no longer small adults. Childhood was perceived as an independent phase of life, during which enlightened pedagogues could form, educate and train their pupils. This should of course be done in a “child-friendly” manner and with the opportunity to play.

Of course, this was only possible amongst the social groups that could afford not to employ their children to work in the fields, i.e. the nobility and bourgeoisie.

Christian Leberecht Vogel: The sons of the artist, around 1793. The boys browse through a picture book.

The Knowledge of the World, Illustrated for Children

It was in this context that the children’s picture book established itself as a book genre. With the help of numerous copperplate engravings, children could be demonstrated the wonders of the world in their home parlour or at school. The best known and most comprehensive one of these picture books came from the Weimar publisher Friedrich Justin Bertuch. Although the market for such works was already fiercely contested, he achieved great success with his picture book, which was first published in 1790. This was also due to its monumental size: Over the years, twelve volumes with a total of 6000, mostly coloured, copperplate engravings were published. In the books, the infantile “readers” encountered illustrations of everything one could possibly imagine. Animals of all kinds occupied the largest space. In addition, there were plants, minerals, inventions, mythological scenes, mythical creatures, buildings, exotic places and people. Where did all the engravings come from? From students of the famous Weimar Princely Free Drawing School, which Bertuch had co-initiated in 1776.

The twelve volumes were accompanied by twelve informative companion volumes, each containing about 700 pages with more information and instructions for parents and teachers. And yes, there was also an educational concept, which also contributed to the success. Bertuch even suggested that the children should colour in non-coloured illustrations, cut them out of the book and hang them up!

“They Despicably Tear and Mess Up My Whole Plan”

At first we thought we had discovered some volumes of Bertuch’s picture book in the library of the MoneyMuseum. But we were only partly right. In fact, our books are reprints which were published in Bohemia in 1806 without Bertuch’s authorisation. Since the demand for Bertuch’s volumes was enormous, it is hardly surprising that such reprints were produced.

Of course, Bertuch was not delighted at all. And certainly Bertuch was not just anybody: He was privy secretary and treasurer of the chamber of the Duchy of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach, had built up one of the largest publishing houses in Germany, and was well connected with the “Court of the Muses” in Weimar and with the German-language literary scene. He was even on a first-name basis with Goethe – at least until they fell out and Goethe denied him the privilege of being on first name terms.

Bertuch used this network to have a hefty complaint printed in the literary journals of the time: he expressed his anger in the “Teutsche Merkur”, the “allgemeine Literaturzeitung”, “die Zeiten”, the “Magazin für den neuesten Zustand der Naturkunde” and the “Allgemeine Geographische Ephemeriden”. His complaint began as follows:

“In Rumburg in Bohemia last year, a couple of ‘gentlemen’ named Pohmann and Hollaubeck, who, in accordance with Dr. Gall’s organ theory, possess of an exceptionally well-developed and predominant thief organ, set out to reprint my picture book for children (or as they like to put it, to republish it under my name), to mess it up despicably, and to betray the public with their stolen goods (…)”

Two matters visibly upset him. First of all, of course, it was the reprint and the consequential financial loss. But it was not, in fact, just a mere reprint. The authors had developed their own considerations and changed the work accordingly. That they had dared to do so peeved Bertuch at least as much as the financial loss. Words such as ruined, trimmed, mutilated, torn up, crammed up, miserable and betrayed were mentioned. A clear sign of his irritation!

The offended businessman also did not accept the editors’ argument that Bertuch’s volumes were far too expensive for most people and that their edition was affordable even for less well-off citizens. This was a “bandit speculation” and he did the math as to why this was not true.

He even had something to criticise about the font: Instead of the Latin letters which he had chosen himself “in order to accustom the child’s eye to this more beautiful Latin script at an early age”, the accused used the “ugly German monastic script”, i. e. fraktur.

In short: Friedrich Justin Bertuch was evidently upset. With his complaint, he claimed that he wanted to warn customers of the poor quality and the brazen nature of the two Bohemians, condemn their shameful behaviour and “put a stop to the disgraceful speculation of the gentlemen Pohmann and Hollaubeck […]”.

Who Cares?

Whether this case really interested anyone in the literary world of 1806, we do not know. But a glance at the history book tells us that in the same year the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist and the Prussian state collapsed after the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. As is well known, on the evening of the battle, even Goethe had to fend off looting French soldiers in his house in Weimar – or had the resolute woman he was to marry five days later do so. Many people will thus have had other concerns than a replicated children’s picture book.

In any case, the concept of the picture book prevailed and is still known to us today. And a look at the volumes, whether licensed or boldly imitated, is still a delight today.


You can browse through the original volumes of the picture book for children here.

Bertuch’s whole rant can be found here.

In our last issue we also covered a case of copyright disputes.