Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm was born January 4, 1785, in Hanau, Hesse-Kessel. We know this area as Germany, but it was part of the Holy Roman Empire then. For some reference, this was a period when Germany was many states, Prussia and Austria being chief among them.
Jacob was eldest of nine siblings, though only six survived infancy. His brother, Wilhem, co-writer of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, was second eldest and born thirteen months his junior. His father, Philipp Wilhelm Grimm, was a lawyer and a town clerk, as was his grandfather, and Jacob would follow in their footsteps.
His family enjoyed a comfortable countryside life until the early death of his father, who was only forty-four. Jacob was eleven at the time and this situation put great strain on the Grimm family. His mother was forced to move into cramped urban housing in her hometown to find work. His aunt paid for him and Wilhem to attend the local high school.
Jacob managed to attend the University of Marburg for law. Due to his financial situation, he was unable to participate in many of the social activities offered by the university. Instead, he poured all his energy into his studies.
It was in college where he first read Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Miracle Horn), a collection of German folk poems and songs. He would also be introduced to philology, the study of language in historical texts. This would set the basis for his investigation into local folklore and the evolution of the German language.
Soon after graduating, his mother died at the age of fifty-two in 1806. With numerous younger siblings still needing care, Jacob took up a position as a librarian in Kassel to support them. His brother Wilhelm did the same, and with the loss of their only parent, the brothers grew close and shared quarters to save money.
It was in Kassel that Jacob and his brother began collecting local folktales. What began as research on the etymology of German soon became a passion for folklore. It was in 1806 that the brothers published Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales -- commonly known as Grimms' Fairy Tales). At the time, they were destitute and eating only one meal a day.
Children’s and Household Tales was one of among nearly twenty-nine books Jacob would publish, eight of which would be with his brother, Wilhelm. They published a second volume and it was reprinted six more times in their lifetime. At its height, the collection contained 200 numbered stories.
Even fairy tales aren’t without their critics. The stories attracted criticism for their explicit sexual content. In reprints, the brothers edited much of it out. The violence was not seen as much of a concern and was increased in some of the later editions. There is also an argument of purification of the folklore as the brothers were openly and devoutly Christian. It’s said this may have affected the way the peasantry retold many stories, changing pagan themes to those more palatable to Christianity.
In the end, Jacob and his brother published two more volumes of folktales, Deutsche Sagen, totaling 585 German legends.
Though Jacob never married, Wilhelm tied the knot with Henriette Dorothea Wild. She and her family were the sources of some of the Grimm’s best folktales. Even after marriage, the brothers continued to live together. It’s been noted that the "both live[d] in the same house and in such harmony and community that one might almost imagine the children were common property." Wilhelm and Henrietta had four children.
Wilhelm died before Jacob, in 1859 at the age of 73. Grieving for the loss of his closest companion, Jacob became even more withdrawn. He spent his final days attempting to complete their German dictionary. He died in 1863, four years after his brother, at 74. His cause of death was listed simply as disease.
He left off on the word “fromm” in his dictionary. It wouldn’t be completed for another 120 years.