Skip to main content

"Clever Maids": the Women Behind Grimms' Fairy Tales

Gilbert received a bachelor of arts at the University of California, Fullerton, in English and theater. He writes creative stories.

Did you know that manny of the Grimm Brothers' best-known fairy tales were shared with them by various women they and their sister met and interviewed?

Did you know that manny of the Grimm Brothers' best-known fairy tales were shared with them by various women they and their sister met and interviewed?

Where Did the Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales Come From?

Most of us are familiar with several or more of the popular fairy tales originally compiled by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812. What many don't know, however, is that the brothers didn't create this fairy tale content. Scholars accredit the fairy tales' origins to oral stories shared among people from generation to generation. The Grimm Brothers interviewed and collected tales from both peasants and aristocratic, educated women for their major literary contribution, Children's and Household Fairy Tales.

Clever Maids, a book written by Valerie Paradiz, may surprise fairy tale lovers. In the book, we learn that the Brothers Grimm—Jacob and Wilhelm—collected fairy tales both near home and afar. The women they encountered in their travels and research shared numerous story variations that had been passed down since before medieval times. Tales circulated among Hessian peasantry, family servants, and working community villagers.

Lotte Grimm, the brothers’ sister, also encouraged a social circle of women to share oral tales while sipping tea, making clothes, and mending garments with needles and thread. These educated ladies offered over 50 percent of 210 fairy tales the brothers eventually published in two volumes. Their tales were transcribed during the so-called Golden Age of Collection (1807–1815).

In this article, we'll discuss five of these women (or groups of women, in most cases) who contributed now-iconic tales to the Grimm Brothers' collections.

  1. The Wild Sisters
  2. The Hassenpflug Sisters
  3. The Von Haxhausen Sisters
  4. The Von Droste-Hülshoff Sisters
  5. Dorothea Viehmann
An 1855 Painting of the Brothers Grimm by Elizabeth Jerichau Baumann

An 1855 Painting of the Brothers Grimm by Elizabeth Jerichau Baumann

1. The Wild Sisters: The Grimms' First Sister Collaborators

Jacob and Wilhelm’s story-collecting collaboration began with the Wild sisters. Their tales often expressed girls' personal suffering. Between 1807 and 1808, the sisters contributed 30 fairy tale stories that the brothers would later publish.

Lisette, a frequent orator of tales, and her sisters once attended a ball given by Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. Gretchen Wild, a 19-year-old, offered the first known narration of a tale in the collection in 1807. Wilhelm transcribed her story, which was called "Child of Mary." In the tale, Virgin Mary takes a child to heaven but forbids her entry into the 13th room. The child denies doing so and encountering the Holy Trinity, but she can’t hide the gold coloring on her hand. Mary banishes her from heaven and sends her back to earth. A merciful king marries the banished girl, but Virgin Mary abducts their three newborn babies. The new queen persistently denies her entry into the 13th door. Villains accuse the queen of killing and eating her babies, and she repents before burning to death at the stake and receives Mary's forgiveness.

Lotte Grimm, an only sister raised with numerous brothers, resembles the female protagonist in "The Six Swans" contributed by Dortchen Wild. The plot pattern contains aspects of "Child of Mary" but is irreligious in nature while retaining spiritual supernatural elements. Lotte felt alienated after her mother passed away. She resented her brothers for treating her like a servant of the household and wanted to leave them.

The Wild Sisters visited an apothecary, and Jacob thought it a disgusting habit. Dortchen Wild narrated well-known fairy-tales like "Hansel and Gretel" and "Rumpelstiltskin." "The Singing Bone" reveals how “brotherly strife leads to irreparable damage in the family.”

Marie Hassenpflug Circa 1812: Credited  With Orating Twenty Grimm Fairy Tales

Marie Hassenpflug Circa 1812: Credited With Orating Twenty Grimm Fairy Tales

2. The Hassenpflug Sisters: French Huguenots

The Hassenpflug family, Huguenots and German residents, practiced French traditions from their native land until abandoning them in the late 17th century when Louis the XIV instated a horrible anti-Protestant proclamation.

In autumn of 1809, the Hassenpflug sisters—Suzette, Jeanette, Maria, and Amalia—shared new stories with Wilhelm. Jeanette presented a dramatic narration of "Puss in Boots." Amalia loved telling scary ghost stories like "The Strange Feast" and "The Godfather." Their reading circle also included other young, middle-class, well-educated girls of Kassel.

Maria suffered a seizure and lost the power of her limbs. Wilhelm sympathized with her, as he suffered from heart ailments. Maria’s output included twenty stories that would end up in the Grimms' collection, including "Sleeping Beauty," "Red Riding Hood," "Bluebeard," and "The Maiden With No Hands."

"Red Riding Hood," transcribed in 1812, originally achieved publication in two parts with two different versions and strengthened the Grimm Brothers' popularity. Modern editions favored the second version and “read like teachings on how to avoid being raped.”

Dortchen Wild and Jeanette Hassenpflug dramatized "The Magic Table," "The Golden Donkey," and "the Club in the Sack." Two oral versions of a story called "Schwank Märchenwere" were also recorded. The story involved a male protagonist becoming involved with comical incidents.

In "On the Despicable Spinning on Flax," a king prefers that his daughters occupy their time with hard labor. They spin flax, but he realizes the excessive work takes a toll on feminine beauty.

"Red Riding Hood" was a popular fairy tale in Europe during the Napoleonic wars because it lent itself so well to political metaphors of power, greed, and most important, the hope for triumph harbored by many a poor commoner.

— Valerie Paradiz

3. The Von Haxhausen Sisters: Educated and Aristocratic

Wilhelm established contact with Werner von Haxhausen, a scholar of Greek folk songs, in Halle, while under Dr. Reil's care. Wilhelm visited Bökerhof, Werner's German estate, in 1811 and discovered the aristocratic, story-weaving Von Haxhausen sisters near the small town of Brakel. Anna, Sophie, Ludowine, and Ferdinandine dramatized "The Maiden of Brakel" and used a dialect spoken in the region around Paderborn.

"The Bremen Town Musicians" is a tale about an unhappy donkey, dog, cat, and rooster. They leave their cruel owners and steal a robber’s den for their new home.

In "The Devil Greencoat" (later known as "Bearskin"), The youngest of three brothers benefits from wearing a devil green coat. He upholds strong moral values, defeats the devil, and gains freedom and wealth. The Grimm Brothers revised and altered a later edition.

It was these women of high education, privilege, and erudition in folkloric scholarship who could deliver with fidelity narratives of the simple life of commoners that the brothers had so passionately sought to publish.

— Valerie Paradiz

Princess Jenny Von Drostle Hülshoff narrated "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes."

Princess Jenny Von Drostle Hülshoff narrated "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes."

4. The Von Droste-Hülshoff Sisters: Aristocratic and Empowered

When Wilhelm edited volume II of Children and Household Fairy Tales, Jenny and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff offered him additional stories. Jenny contributed "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes" (also known as "The Three Dancing Princesses").

A wondrous arbor description in the tale reminded Wilhelm of a path of arching trees at Bökerhof, and he remembered Anna von Haxhausen’s first story while enjoying a walk with Jenny. The tale describes tree leaves made of sparkling silver, gold, and diamonds. A spy earns a king’s confidence and his eldest daughter by bringing back three different branches from the tree. The von Haxhausen sisters resembled the princesses/dancers in the tale and were aristocratic and empowered, unlike the "common" girls Wilhelm associated with at home.

5. Dorothea Viehmann: A Productive Storyteller

Dorothea Viehmann, an old woman from Zwern, contributed 40 oral tales. Her version of "Cinderella" resembles two other 18th-century versions written by Charles Perrault and Madame d’Alonoy. The Grimm Brothers suspected she picked up stories from village workers and her mother. Viehmann drank coffee and wine and received a silver spoon and money from the Brothers Grimm as payment.

"Doctor Know It All," a comedic story type called Schwank Märchen, features a simpleton male. Unexpected good behavior rewards him with fame and fortune. The story's outcome defies social rank, class, wealth, and education. Dorothea loved themes about the distortion of identity. Masking one’s persona can be exceedingly profitable.

"The Goose Maid" begins with a mother applying three drops of her blood onto a piece of white cambric that she then gives to her daughter. The blood-stained fabric works like a protective charm for the future princess. The princess's maid pretends to act like her but eventually suffers punishment.

"The Three Army Surgeons" covers a war theme, experiments with horrifying amputations, and exemplifies burlesque commentary. A common field soldier risks losing personal body parts. Odds favor a high-class army surgeon's survival. European organ transplants revolutionized experimental medicine. Black markets obtained corpses from gravediggers during war.

The Grimm Brothers downplayed Viehmann’s intelligence. Huguenot heritage defined her as a French-speaking woman, but they labeled her “quintessentially Hessian,” in the forward of volume II of Children and Household Fairy Tales. Napoleon’s demise set off prideful patriotic celebrations, but Jacob and Wilhelm reshaped Viehmann’s image to reflect the native ideals of their homeland.

The motif of the glass slipper, used as a means of divining the identity of the prince’s true love, dates even further back and appears in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, a collection of Neopolitan folk tales published in 1637.

— Valerie Paradiz

Female Authors and Storytellers Struggled for Personal Recognition

Clever Maids discloses an essential revelation about educated ladies contributing fairy tales to the Brothers Grimm. Common women also shared tales with them. Transcriptions of women’s oral tales gained popularity during the early 1800s.

Charles Perrault, who wrote a popular version of "Cinderella," also looked to women for orated tales. Jacob and Wilhelm credited women authors’ regional areas but didn’t print their personal names. Later, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff became a popular 19th-century German author, and her novella, The Birch of the Jew, achieved publication and attention.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley achieved anonymous publication in January 1818 at a small London publishing house. Later, she received name recognition and was listed as Shelley on a second-edition publication. G and W.B. Whittaker published the novel in two volumes and increased her popularity. Mary Shelley’s accreditation as the original creator occurred after the Grimm Brothers had published many editions of Children and Household Fairy Tales.


Paradiz, V. (2009). Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. Basic Books,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on July 06, 2020:

Thanks for reading my article, Tolovaj. I was amazed when I read the book, too. The Grimm Brothers were like Walt Disney of their times. Entertainment depended so much on literature and creative stories.

Tolovaj on July 02, 2020:

Thanks for the heads up! I need to read this book ASAP. You are right, it's common error believing Grimms traveled around and collect the fairy tales. Almost all material presented in their book was published before they were even born and their real contribution was to put the tales in a context of the time. That's why the Grimms' Fairy tales are so important.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on May 15, 2020:

I'm glad you liked it, JC. "Clever Maidens" provides an interesting read, and discusses more interesting stories and background than I was able to cover.

JC Scull on May 15, 2020:

Very good hub.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on May 13, 2020:

Thanks for reading my hub, Kumar. If you get a chance to read Valerie's book, you'll learn much more about the subject. She touched on issues I couldn't cover because of word count and her vast material.

Kumar Paral from India on May 13, 2020:

Very informative. Thanks for sharing.