Historie and Mysteries: The Tragedy of Frozen Charlotte
I was about eight years old, digging away happily in a flowerbed in our back garden in Exeter, ‘helping’ with the weeding. The sunlight caught something in the dirt and I carefully dug around the object to see what it was.
It turned out to be a tiny white china doll about 3cm in length, with painted black hair and lopsided, painted facial features. It was naked, and moulded into its back was the number 4.
Incredibly, apart from some paint that had worn away, the doll was not chipped or broken in any way, and I wondered who she had belonged to, and how long she had been buried in the earth in our garden.
The tiny doll is a Frozen Charlotte, a type of miniature which was hugely popular in Victorian times. They were made between 1850 and 1920 or thereabouts, usually from china or bisque, which is a type of pottery that is fired once. They were anything from less than an inch long to full-size dolls around fifteen inches tall.
The smaller ones were used in dolls’ houses and sometimes as charms in Christmas puddings or cakes. Mostly made in Germany as a bath-time toy designed to float in the water, the dolls were also popular in the United States. Male dolls, identified by their hairstyles, were known as Frozen Charlies.
They were either white, like my own, painted a pale pink skin colour, or, more rarely, painted black. Some have moulded hair or clothes and the arms and legs are in a variety of standing poses, although most usually their legs are moulded together and their arms at their sides.
The dolls are said to have been given their name after an American writer from Maine, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, wrote a poem entitled
A Corpse Going to a Ball. She was inspired by a newspaper article which described a young woman who tragically froze to death in February 1840, while travelling by sleigh to a ball.
The poem was published in 1843 and it was around the mid 1800s that the tiny china dolls started to become popular in the States. The poem describes a vain young woman named Charlotte, who refuses to cover herself with a blanket as she travels by sleigh to a ball, as it would hide her beautiful gown. On arriving at the ball, her young man, Charlie, whose approach to the weather was significantly more sensible, found the poor girl frozen to death in the sleigh.
The poem became popular because of its moralistic nature, warning against vanity and the dangers of failing to listen to one’s parents.
The poem was set to music in the 1860s by a folk singer named William Lorenzo Carter and the resulting ballad quickly became a favourite throughout the US and Canada. The dolls appeared not long afterwards and their ‘frozen’, unjointed forms were soon associated with the tragic corpse in the sleigh and named Frozen Charlottes. Or were they?
There is some debate about when the name was actually attached to the dolls; some claim it was shortly after their introduction to the States, while others suggest that it didn’t actually happen until early in the 20th Century. Certainly, no evidence has ever been produced to indicate that these dolls were ever advertised as ‘Frozen Charlottes’; they were simply called ‘dolls’.
Some of these dolls were produced with accessories such as tiny blankets and coffins, perhaps to reinforce the warning in Smith’s poem.
They are also referred to as ‘penny dolls’, as that was sometimes how much they were sold for. This meant that many families, even poorer ones, could afford to buy them, and as a result, demand soared, along with their popularity. They maintained this popularity into the beginning of the 20th Century, when both their impact as a cautionary tale and their desirability as playthings began to wane.
I was curious as to where my Frozen Charlotte had come from, so I located an OS map of Exeter dated 1888-1913. A quick scan showed that my house was built on what had once been open fields, so the Frozen Charlotte must have been dropped or fallen out of a pocket.
Looking at the worn paint on its head, it is easy to picture it being held by the head in tiny fingers, the paint gradually wearing away through repeated play.