By Kirsti Scott
For many beachcombers, the Frozen Charlotte doll is a strange and exciting prize. These beautiful and slightly creepy pieces of Victorian history wash ashore in many different sizes and styles, and have a notoriously dark origin story. The tale is well-known in the beachcombing community: A young woman Charlotte wanted to attend a New Year’s ball on a particularly cold night. She insisted on traveling in an open sleigh so she could show off her beautiful gown, despite her mother’s many warnings and pleading advice to dress more warmly. Foolish and vain, Charlotte disobeyed her mother and froze to death. But should these distinctive beach finds actually be called “Frozen Charlotte” dolls?
Dolls with china heads, 1750-1870, Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. Jointed doll and penny dolls, Kirsti Scott. Porcelain doll arms, Marylou Forrest.
The bleak story of Frozen Charlotte originated in a New York Observer article in 1840 that described the frigid death of a real-life young woman somewhere in upstate New York. Over the next few years, some songs and poems helped to further the popularity of the story, and soon it caught fire in America. The story had a clear and easily-understood moral: listen to your mother and don’t be vain.
By the time the small, white porcelain dolls were introduced to the U.S. by Germany in the mid-1800s, they were quickly and commonly dubbed “Frozen Charlottes” and their male counterparts “Frozen Charlies.” Except… they weren’t. It’s a complete historical inaccuracy.
The Worthington Advance, Worthington, Minnesota, 24 Nov 1899, Page 7.
There isn’t a single reference (in magazines, books, newspapers, or anything else for that matter) of these porcelain dolls being called “Frozen Charlottes” in the entire 19th and early 20th centuries. This is pretty remarkable, considering the near-universal belief that this time period was the origin of the dolls’ name.
Mary McCarthy, Kristina Braga, Marylou Forrest Lori Christofferson
It’s commonly accepted that these dolls were didactic tools, physical representations of the consequences of parental disobedience. It’s widely believed that Victorian children were well-aware of the origin story of these dolls and played with them nonetheless. After all, many aspects of Victorian culture are openly macabre and death-obsessed, so this grisly historical narrative isn’t entirely outlandish.
Ryan Headley, Ryan Headley, Joan Arentz, Mary McCarthy
Kirsti Scott, Kristina Braga, Michele Lane
Harriet Downes-Slaughter, Kristina Braga, Tracy Lingle
But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s false. All mentions of these dolls from the time period call them “penny dolls,” not “Frozen Charlottes.” So when did the name we use today actually become connected to these little porcelain dolls? It was likely coined by doll collectors as late as the mid-1940s, when mentions of “Frozen Charlotte dolls” in ads, newspapers, books, and magazines skyrocketed, and soon became the common way to refer to these Victorian playthings.
Suzanne Reichert, Suzanne Davis
Lori Christofferson, Christine Solorio, Nicole McFarlane Young
Jodie Greene, Carly Netz, Ryan Headley, Christine Solorio
So, while it makes a compelling and delightfully morbid origin story, none of the children who actually played with these dolls knew of a connection between their favorite toy and a foolish young woman’s frostbitten corpse. And even though they’ve lost a bit of their historical creepiness, don’t let that stop you from being excited if you find a porcelain doll on the shore. They’re still strangely beautiful, wonderfully creepy, and rare.
Tarah Nicole Hoffmann, Cindy Cerefin, Kristina Braga
Plus, if anything, this small scandal of historical inaccuracy makes them even more interesting!
Read about the Frozen Charlotte myth in The Tale of Frozen Charlotte.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2021 issue.