Heinzelmännchen Fountain in Cologne, Germany

Once upon a time, so the legend goes, the city of Cologne was helped along by a little race of creatures called Heinzelmännchen, which are actually little gnomes or elves that, as the story goes, came out at night after the humans went to bed to do all of the work of the citizens of Cologne, allowing them to be lazy during the day.

But, elves don’t work for free. You should read the book to find out what happens when the people of Cologne forget their part of the bargain.

The Elves of Cologne

Stories about elves have long tradition in Germany, and have been passed along orally for generations. Industrious Elves performed household and farm chores, made shoes and sausages; basically doing all the things that humans need to get done, but at night, without anyone seeing them. 

Elves love keeping busy and learning new trades. While they don’t want money, it is important to leave a bowl of dinner for them – hungry elves can’t get anything done. And, it is absolutely essential that you never mock or neglect them, or, even worse, play tricks on them.

Mistakes were made

As the tale goes, it didn’t take long for the people of Cologne to realize that they no longer had to finish their work because it would always be finished for them. No one ever saw the Heinzelmännchen, all they knew was someone or something was doing the work and they didn’t really care how it was happening.

So the citizens of Cologne got lazy. And before you know it, the people were hardly doing any of the work. The Heinzelmännchen went on cleaning the houses and making clothes for the people.

The Tailor’s wife got nosy

The Tailor’s wife scattered peas across the floor to catch the workers in the act. (In case you’re wondering, the Tailor’s wife used the hard ones, not the cooked peas mom served at meals.) The Heinzelmännchen came in at night after everyone went to bed, like they always did, but when they crossed the floor to get to work, they slipped and slid on those hard peas.

The gnomes got so mad that they left, never to return again and the people of Cologne had to do all of their own work once again.

The Heinzelmännchen Story

The story roughly translates to: “Once upon a time in Cologne, how comfortable it was with the Heinzelmen! For if you were lazy, … you just lay down on your bench and took care of yourself. Then at night, before one knew it, came the little men and swarmed and clattered and rattled and plucked and picked and jumped and trotted and cleaned and scoured –and even before a lazy bum awoke, all his daily work was … already done! …”

The legend was first written down by the Cologne teacher Ernst Weyden (1805-1869) in 1826. In 1836 the painter and poet August Kopisch published a famous poem beginning with the words (full text here):

Wie war zu Cölln es doch vordem
Mit Heinzelmännchen so bequem!
Denn war man faul,… man legte sich
Hin auf die Bank und pflegte sich.
Da kamen bei Nacht, eh’ man’s gedacht,
Die Männlein und schwärmten
Und klappten und lärmten
Und rupften
Und zupften
Und hüpften und trabten
Und putzten und schabten –
Und eh’ ein Faulpelz noch erwacht,
war all sein Tagwerk… bereits gemacht!

Once upon a time in Cologne,
how comfortable it was with the Heinzelmen!
For if you were lazy,… you just lay down
On your bench and took care of yourself.
Then at night, before one knew it, came
The little men and swarmed
And clattered and rattled
And plucked
And picked
And jumped and trotted
And cleaned and scoured –
And even before a lazy bum awoke,
All his daily work was… already done!

The Heinzelmännchen Fountain

The Tailor’s Wife

It is an interesting story and the Heinzelmännchen fountain was created with plaques along the wall to tell the story of the gnomes and the tailor’s wife. The legend was first written down in the 1800’s and the fountain was built in 1899. One of our first stops when we visited Cologne was to the Früh Brewery and the Heinzelmännchen fountain with all of the carvings is located in the square outside of the brewery. The panels on the ‘wings’ of the fountain detail the Heinzelmännchen doing the work of:

  • The Butcher

  • Brewing beer

  • Baking bread

  • The Carpenter

  • The Tailor

  • The Cooper


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