Defrosting Frozen Charlotte: 21st-Century Misconceptions about a 19th-Century Doll


Legend for FCs

What had been intended as a German bath toy soon became known in America as a “Frozen Charlotte.” The dolls cost a penny and were insanely popular—some being sold with their very own coffin and blanket-cum-shroud. (

Those weird Victorians.

Innumerable websites, newspaper articles, magazines, and scholarly pieces tell us that 19th-century American parents gave their children small, rigid, pale-white porcelain dolls named after Charlotte, a vain young woman who rejected her mother’s advice to dress more warmly and who consequently froze to death in an open sleigh on her way to a ball. Further, the theme holds that Victorian children recognized the symbolism inherent in these small, corpse-like dolls and used them as playthings, sometimes even placing them in tiny coffins. In fact, we’re told that the motif of this particular frozen woman was so pervasive in the 19th century that our counterparts named a dessert after her and baked representations of her into cakes.

Today we accept these claims because this bizarre narrative fits with our perception of Victorians as moralizing and obsessed by death. But this specifically modern belief falls apart when it becomes apparent that no one has provided contemporaneous evidence that Victorian parents and children viewed small china dolls as the fabled Charlotte. And a survey of American newspapers, magazines, and books of the period fails to find 19th- and early 20th-century mentions of dolls named “Frozen Charlottes.”

If no 19th-century sources exist for the notion that Victorian Americans associated these dolls with the legend and consequently called them “Frozen Charlottes,” where did the belief come from?

These inexpensive fixed-joint dolls, generally known in the 19th century as “penny dolls” and now commonly known as “Frozen Charlottes,” acquired the legend-based name long after the 19th century had ended. And in order to understand how the doll was so dubbed, you have to know something about the doll and legend on which its name is based.

SnowA Corpse Going to a Ball

On the front page of the 8 February 1840 issue of The New York Observer, under the heading “Religious,” a long and macabre anecdote appeared [see Note 1]. It described events alleged to have taken place in upstate New York just a month earlier, on a “bitter cold” New Year’s Day [but see Note 2].

A young couple made their way through the countryside in an open sleigh, headed for a New Year’s ball at a destination some 20 miles away. The female ball-goer,

was young and gay and her charms of youth and beauty were never lovelier than when dressed for that New Year’s Ball. Of course too thinly clad for the season, and especially for that dreadful day, she had not gone far before she complained of being cold, very cold; but their anxiety to reach the end of their ride in time to be present at the opening of the dance, induced them to hurry onways without stopping on the way. Not long after this complaining she said that she felt perfectly comfortably, was now quite warm, and that there was no necessity of delay on her account. They reached, at length, the house where the company were gathering; the young man leaped from the sleigh, and extended his hand to assist her, but she answered not; she was dead – stone dead – frozen stiff – a corpse on the way to the ball.

Smith, with legendThis tale, sometimes condensed, was reprinted across the United States in the early 1840s and made its way into British newspapers. Further, it was adapted to poem (or “ballad”) form in early 1841 and credited to “Mrs. Seba Smith” (Elizabeth Oakes Smith, née Prince), an American writer and early feminist. In late 1843 the poem was republished in The Rover, a magazine edited by Smith’s husband; oddly, this time Seba Smith himself was credited as its author.

Smith’s work gave names to the previously nameless young couple. She told of Charlotte’s rebuff of her mother’s advice to dress more warmly as she prepared to leave for a New Year’s Eve ball and of Charles’s driving the sleigh on that bitterly cold evening. It’s no surprise to us now that, at the end of the journey, “[h]is Charlotte was a stiffen’d corpse, and word spake never more.” The poem itself gave rise to a well-studied American folk tune, known in the 19th century (as today) by the titles “Young Charlotte,” “Fair Charlotte,” and even “Frozen Charlotte.”

Brian Jones figure, with legendWhat makes a doll a “Frozen Charlotte” depends on who is writing about it, but consensus holds that these are naked, molded porcelain or bisque dolls with fixed (immovable) joints. Some are very old (ca. 1850) and of German origin, co-existing with “A Corpse Going to a Ball,” and others not so old (ca. 1920). Sizes range from a diminutive 1 inch up to a towering 10 inches or more. The German makers of the earliest dolls sometimes painted on hairstyles (appropriate to the date and place of manufacture) and faces, but plenty of early dolls appeared with no such embellishments. They are invariably snow-white, which works well with the legend, but archaeologists, historians, and doll collectors point out that black versions were also produced. (For reviews, see St. George, 1948; Davis, 1993; Lima, 2012; Fernandez, 2015; and Betti, 2017.)

Playing Dead

Our modern belief in “frozen woman as doll” is built on a layering of specific claims. At its core are the notions that Victorians associated these dolls with the legend (and, further, that they created the dolls because of the legend), that they consequently dubbed them “Frozen Charlottes,” that they used them didactically, and that their children understood them to represent Charlotte’s frozen body. (Moreover, there is a related association of the frozen-woman motif with Victorian food: these “corpse dolls” were sometimes baked into cakes and a then-popular dessert was named after Charlotte herself.)

A few examples of this theme:female memento mori, partial, with legend

Nineteenth-century Americans wrote poems, told stories, sang songs, crafted dolls, and even made a dessert in honor of Frozen Charlotte, a vain and strong-willed maiden who insisted on going to a dance against her mother’s advice and met her death on a frigid Maine night. (Bennett, 2012)

The Frozen Charlottes had a clear didactic function: they taught girls to obey their mothers and wrap up properly in winter or else they would die, the most extreme punishment for disobedience. Moreover, they showed the end result of thoughtless behavior and excessive vanity. (Lima, 2012)

During the Victorian era in the United States, these little dolls were baked into cakes, associated with a famous dessert, and sought after by young girls, just as they are sought by collectors today. But it wasn’t a little girl that gave the doll her name: Frozen Charlotte. […] When Americans first saw the hard, white bisque dolls, the association with the unfortunate Charlotte must have seemed obvious. They began referring to them as Frozen Charlottes. (Ewbank, 2019)

This folktale turned ballad was popular enough to inspire the creation of a new kind of porcelain doll. Frozen Charlottes were popular from the mid-19th into the early 20th centuries. Typically small in size, naked, and with no moveable pieces, hence “frozen,” these dolls would have been the personal possession of a child; they could also be placed in dollhouses or used in charms in Christmas puddings. Mass-produced in the 1850s, most Frozen Charlotte dolls were unglazed “bisque” porcelain and typically left white. Sometimes Frozen Charlottes were displayed in macabre ways, housed, for example, in small caskets on mantles or tables. Such customs may suggest that the tale of the poem followed the dolls into the hands of young girls where the lesson may have lingered. (Derington, undated)

Tons of small porcelain dolls were being made in Germany from about 1850 to 1920. They were meant to be bath toys, as they floated, and were cheap enough at a penny for nearly every child to have. In America and Canada they became associated with Seba Smith’s creepy poem, and became known as Frozen Charlottes. Sometimes they even came in a little casket. This cautionary tale to listen to your parents was not limited to girls. That was the purpose of the Frozen Charlie doll – to send the same message to boys. In Victorian times in America, they were planted into birthday and celebration cakes as a reward, but a reminder of the precariousness of death and the consequences of parental disobedience. (geschenke2015, 2019)

Beginning in the 1850s, cheap porcelain dolls of “Frozen Charlotte” began to be sold in the U.S. and in Europe as fashionable items to be collected or baked into cakes to be same Victorian culture that created necklaces out of human hair and even circulated memento mori with pictures of beloved children and relatives portrayed after death. (Agugliaro, 2017)

The framework fails, however, when you knock out its base.

Doll ad, with legendNewspaper advertisements and writings of the period demonstrate that Americans at least knew these small rigid dolls as “penny dolls,” but toy sellers never seem to have advertised these as “Charlotte” dolls. In fact, nothing in 19th- and early 20th-century publications supports the belief that Americans ever made a connection between these figures and Charlotte [see Note 3 for databases searched].

Moreover, no one writing today about Frozen Charlottes has provided contemporaneous evidence that 19th- and early 20th-century Americans ever considered these small dolls as corpses or the embodiments of a vain young woman who froze on her way to a ball.

Further, A Study of Dolls (1897), by American psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1846-1924) and then-student A. Caswell Ellis (1871-1948), mentions neither “Frozen Charlottes” nor a legend on which such dolls might be based. This academic survey, conducted in 1894, of how children of the period (and sometimes their parents) had played with dolls includes no reference to death rituals involving penny dolls, not even in sections on children’s performances with “dead dolls” and “doll funerals.” Further, “Charlotte” is not listed in a section on doll names; one would think the name would appear there were these dolls commonly viewed as representations of the dead Charlotte.

Was this presumably Victorian connection between Charlotte’s legend and the penny doll a lingering memory from the 19th century? Hall’s and Ellis’s work suggests this very specific form of doll-play nonexistent in the second half of the 19th century in Massachusetts, which — given its placement in New England — should have been somewhere close to Ground Zero for broader “Frozen Charlotte” folklore.

1949 illustration with legendDead Giveaways

In fact, the so-far earliest mentions of a doll called Frozen Charlotte and couplings of the doll with the legend appear in American newspapers in the mid-1940s. And it was doll collectors and reporters writing about doll collectors who called penny dolls by this name, sometimes also referring to the legend.

Specimens on exhibit will include character dolls, foreign dolls, wooden, wax, antique, rag, papier mache, frozen Charlottes, china, bisque and other types. (Public Opinion, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, 1 December 1945, p. 4.)

Housewives and old-timers, school children and toddlers keeping tight holds on mama’s skirts are spending every afternoon circling the crepe-paper festooned display cases. Little girls are gazing enviously at the collection of china “frozen Charlotte” dolls which were treasured playmates of little girls 70 years ago. (The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wisconsin, 29 May 1948, p. 7.)

The miniature dolls made in one piece, known as Frozen Charlottes, once sold for a penny and were rigid little china dolls, known to children of 1870. (The Long Beach [California] Independent, 22 June 1948, p. 8.)

In her collection are dolls of china, wax, papier mache, tin, hand carved wood and jointed food. There are sleeping dolls, creeping dolls, twin dolls and Frozen Charlottes (whose name was derived from the century-old Vermont Folk ballad of “Fair Charlotte,” who was frozen stiff on a Winter’s night). (The Rochester [New York] Democrat and Chronicle, 20 November 1948, p. 25.)

This little stiff-piece figure, sometimes known as a “pillar doll,” or a penny doll, was christened, according to [doll collector and historian] Janet Pagter Johl, after the heroine of an ancient New England ballad. (Gordon, 1949)

Penny dolls and Frozen Charlottes were very popular with little girls 40 to 60 years ago. These dolls were from ½ inch to 3 inches tall and sold from one penny to 25 cents. Although they were made of wax at first, later they were made from stone bisque with moveable arms. Little girls loved to dress these dolls with scraps from mother’s sewing. The name Frozen Charlotte comes from an old ballad sung by wandering minstrels. (The Middlesboro [Kentucky] Daily News, 24 March 1949, p. 6.)

Another family of dolls, the frozen Charlottes, made entirely of china, were brought out about the time the popular ballad of “Poor Charlotte,” a New England maiden who perished in the snow and cold, was being sung. (The Daily Gazette, Janesville, Wisconsin, 31 October 1949, p. 11.)

Her smallest [dolls] are tiny inch-tall China dolls called “Frozen Charlottes.” The name stems from a doleful New England folk ballad. Also known as “Cake dolls,” they were baked in cakes as favors or fortunes. “Frozen Charlottes” were made before the civil war. (The Council Bluffs [Iowa] Nonpareil, 12 January 1950, p. 8.)

These early descriptions of “Frozen Charlottes” lack the now-current claim that Victorians themselves connected the penny doll with the legend of frozen Charlotte, but that linkage was certainly in place by the early 1950s.

Two “Frozen Charlotte” dolls, one an 8-inch doll and the other a 4-inch doll in a small iron cradle, are prized by Mrs. Pelly. Frozen Charlotte dolls were made as illustrations for the many-versed ballad telling of a girl who went out with her lover on a cold winter night although not properly clothed. The girl was frozen to death, Mrs. Pelly explains. (The Globe-Gazette, Mason City, Iowa, 25 November 1950, p. 16.)

My favorite of this group — because of the folk story connected with it — was the smallest and cheapest and practically every little girl in the early 1900’s owned one, according to [doll collector] Miss Schuette. She was called the “Frozen Charlotte” and she served as a warning to all vain young ladies (an early example of applied psychology?) She refused to wrinkle her first party dress by wearing a wrap on a cold winter night and froze solid on her way to the dance! (The Green Bay [Wisconsin] Press-Gazette, 1 November 1955, p. 10.)

As the story [of Fair Charlotte] was passed along from wagging tongue to receptive ear, it came to be known as the Ballad of Frozen Charlotte, emphasizing the fact that she ended up frigid as well as rigid, and soon inspired the limited manufacture of toy dolls, made of china and all in one immovable piece, which naturally became known as Frozen Charlottes. (The Victoria [Texas] Advocate, 6 November 1960, p. 3.)

The collector also has several “Frozen Charlotte” dolls. These dolls were inspired by a poem popular at the time they were made. The poem tells how a young man took Charlotte to a party one cold winter night in a sleigh. Charlotte was too proud to wrap up in the blanket and by the time they reached the party she was frozen to death. (The Northwest Arkansas Times, Fayetteville, 24 October 1962, p. 6.)

That the name “Frozen Charlotte” was coined within the doll-collecting community sometime slightly before or around World War 2 is evident in doll collector/historian Eleanor St. George’s 1948 book, Dolls of Yesterday [see also Note 4].

The name “Frozen Charlotte” … seems to be a comparatively recent name. Since doll collecting has become so popular, many doll legends have grown up which have no firmer basis than the fancies of some imaginative collector or the desire of some dealer to enhance the interest and value of his wares. Certainly, when this writer, in common with all the little girls of the neighborhood, played with these dolls and made extensive wardrobes for them, the tiny ones were called “penny dolls” and the larger ones were known simply as “twenty-five-cent dolls.”

Doll collector/historian Nina B. Shepard, in a 1952 commentary on how to put a value to an old doll, went further, mentioning how doll collectors affixing names to 19th-century dolls was problematic.

I cannot but feel we collectors probably prompted by dealers are making a serious and misleading mistake in coining name for various dolls. If the trade mark is on the doll, well and good, then it is a Jumeau, a Brue, a Lerch and Klagg etc. But when we speak of Frozen Charlottes (which really give me the chills regardless of the legend) Jenny Linds, Mary Todd Lincolns and other numerous names we are not carrying out an original idea (although we may be initiating one) or a patent title but using our own ingenuity to tag certain dolls with definite names and cheapening the doll by so using modern ideas or sellable names. This expression was used before me in talking over this situation “Such coinage of names puts racketeering into our hobby.” Think of this, you doll collectors.

I cannot believe there is authentic proof in the mind of the manufacturers of old dolls or of the children playing with them for so dubbing them. Dolls with blue eyes became popular in Queen Victoria’s reign but we cannot call them ‘Queen Victoria’s’ nor can we call the wooden dolls she played with circa 1820, Victoria dolls. We all see dolls that remind us of some prominent or historical character but why should any one of us have the right to so describe the type. We may think of our own doll in such terms but should not pass it on, for this is as bad as passing on a legend of our own making.

From Cradle to Gravedoll in coffin, resized

At some point in the recent past doll collectors, artists, and jewelers began to run with the theme of “dead woman as doll,” pairing Frozen Charlottes with death-related items. A popular website’s post on Frozen Charlottes includes a picture found on Etsy showing a doll in a small antique metal coffin onto which the words “Don’t Talk So Much” had been embossed (Chavez, 2014). As the author of the influential blog post noted,

Unfortunately, there was no further information attached to the item, just a lot of unanswered questions. Who made this? When? Why? What’s with the mega creepy inscription that seems almost threatening in tone? I’m afraid I still don’t have any answers to these questions after a week of research. However, the little corpse in the coffin had some stories to tell.

These are no ordinary playthings. The dolls originated in the US during the Victorian era, around 1860 and were called Frozen Charlottes, (or Charlie for males), dolls. The dolls were made in response to the enormous popularity of a song, “Fair Charlotte,” which was based on an 1843 poem penned by Maine journalist, Seba Smith, entitled, “A Corpse Going to a Ball.”

Given our modern association of the doll with the legend, the pairing of this small doll with antique coffins seems to make sense. However, although penny dolls and doll-sized metal and wooden caskets co-existed in the 19th-century [see Note 5], there’s no evidence that then-owners of these dolls favored placing them in small coffins. (When we encounter a recent photograph of a small antique doll in a small antique casket we cannot assume that the pairing itself is antique and authentic.)

Another modern belief pairs the “corpse doll” with the long-standing tradition of baking small objects into cakes. This theme of “representation of a dead woman” baked into a cake is made clear in the titles of blog posts:

“Happy Birthday, There’s a Corpse in Your Cake!”
“Frozen Charlotte: A Cautionary Tale Baked into a Cake”
“Frozen Charlotte: The Creepy Doll that Became the King Cake Baby”

Although we have evidence that 19th-century Americans (and others) sometimes placed penny dolls (and other items) into cakes, there’s no evidence that they ever considered these objects as symbols of frozen women.

Despite what we moderns believe, nor did the legend of frozen Charlotte serve as inspiration for the creation of Frozen Charlotte Russe, a favorite 19th-century dessert. The trifle-like treat, popular into the 20th century, is merely a cold (or icebox) version of Charlotte Russe, which is based on the still older and simpler charlotte, a type of molded cake known since the 18th century. The increasing prevalence of iceboxes in homes and restaurants in the United States in the last half of the 19th century drove the creation of many cold desserts, which could now be served all year long. One indeed finds many occurrences of the phrase “Frozen Charlotte” in 19th-century newspapers, magazines, and books, but these invariably refer to the dessert (and sometimes to the ballad) and not to a doll. An origin-story for the dessert based on “A Corpse Going to a Ball” is simply unnecessary.

Let It Go

Exhaustive searches of historic newspaper databases, magazines, and books of the period have failed to unearth contemporaneous evidence to support the idea that 19th-century Americans equated the penny doll with the legend of Fair Charlotte. Further, no one who has written about the penny doll and included a Victorian connection to the legend in his or her analysis has published anything from the 19th or early 20th centuries to support the claim.

Longfellow NPS, Daly, with legend“The Victorian doll who represented a frozen woman” has become an example of “hidden” or “hushed-up” history, the type of bizarre “did you know … ?” factoid we believe and share without asking for primary sources. Doll collector/historian Nancy Shepard cautioned about this intertwining of fact and fiction in 1952.

The legends [about a doll] when told by families who have owned the doll through generations and who perhaps have pictures for proof, are valuable but legends in themselves most times must be taken with the proverbial ‘grain of salt.’ I realize that a ‘history’ of an individual doll may be a forgery. It may be fabricated into a most romantic and alluring story. We all love those stories but here is where we must use discretion and whatever knowledge our study has developed.

Once doll collectors in the mid-20th-century connected the stiff, pale-white female figurine of the 1850s with the 19th-century legend and ballad and casually introduced the consequent nickname to the public, we invented complex death-inspired histories for the doll, the adults who purchased her, and the children who played with her. In the end, while there is no real harm in referring to a penny doll as a Frozen Charlotte, we should at least be clear about the doll’s original place in American popular culture: for Victorians these were inexpensive, accessible playthings, easily lost and easily replaced, and not much more.


I am grateful to Brian Jones of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at the University of Connecticut, Noelle McElrath-Hart of The Strong National Museum of Play, and David Daly of the U.S. National Park Service for kind permission to use their institutions’ photographs. Special thanks go to Sarah Blake, Garson O’Toole, and Brian Chapman for their help with this project and their encouragement along the way.


1. Here is the full anecdote, as printed in The Observer on 8 February 1840, p. 1. (Little recognized is that a shortened version of “A Corpse Going to the Ball,” attributed to “Correspondent of New York Observer,” appeared on the second page of The Evening Post (New York, New York) on 7 February 1840, the evening before the full anecdote appeared in The Observer.)

Full anecdote

2. Soon after “A Corpse Going to a Ball” appeared in Northeast American newspapers, however, some regional editors found this sensational anecdote so implausible that they felt the need to comment on its veracity. Two notable examples from New York newspapers:



3. Search strategies targeted digitized historical newspaper databases and periodicals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These databases included, but were not limited to: ProQuest collections (including American Periodicals Series, ProQuest Civil War Era, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, ProQuest Women’s Magazine Archive), Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers and America’s Historical Imprints, Archive of Americana, The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries, the Library of Congress’s Chronicling of America, HarpWeek (Harper’s Weekly), Making of America (Cornell), Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Accessible Archives, Gale Primary Sources, Gale NewsVault, Hathi Trust Digital Library, Nineteenth Century Collections Online, Periodicals Archive Online, Sabin Americana, JSTOR, Google Books,,, and

4. St. George further explained that, “[w]hile the name, Frozen Charlotte, is an apt one and will probably continue to be used, one may discount the name ‘Teacup doll’ and the story that goes with it, which says that the dolls were used to stir the sugar in ladies’ afternoon tea and that the departing guest was given the doll and the teacup as souvenirs.”

5. Small metal coffins emblazoned with “This Man Was Talked to Death,” for example, existed in the 1870s and 1880s. A few were mentioned in The Chicago Tribune (29 August 1875, p. 16), The New Orleans Republican (8 February 1876, p. 5), and The Harper County [Kansas] Times (2 June 1881, p. 5), respectively.

A minister of this city dropped in upon the Assistant County Treasurer to pay his taxes. While occupying a seat at the desk his eye caught a miniature coffin, upon which raising the lid showed these words: “This man was talked to death.”

Yesterday while a Senator was delivering himself of a speech that did not interest everybody, another member quietly stepped to his side and held up a toy coffin on which was inscribed, “This man was talked to death.” The reply was a blunt one, and the presenter laughingly retired to his cage.

The Kingman [Kansas] Citizen tells of a novel plan adopted by Judge Peters to keep from being bored by attorneys. The Judge carries in his pocket a small tin coffin on which is the inscription, “This man was talked to death,” and when a long winded lawyer gets to spouting on some unimportant question the Judge places the coffin before him. It has the desired effect.

Different images of “Frozen Charlotte” dolls in small antique metal coffins on which the words “Talked to Death” appear at and (both accessed 20 June 2019). It’s not inconceivable that a small “Don’t Talk So Much” coffin belongs to the same era, used by judges, senators, country treasurers and the like for similar humorous effect.


Agugliaro, Siel. “Frozen Dolls and Famous Actresses: A Tale of Two Charlottes,”, 26 July 2017. (Accessed 6 May 2019.)

Bennett, Judith M. “Death and the Maiden,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42: 269-305, 2012.

Betti, Colleen. “’They Gave the Children China Dolls’: Toys and Enslaved Childhoods on American Plantations,” Master’s Thesis, Department of Anthropology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017.

Chavez, Sarah. “Happy Birthday, There’s a Corpse in Your Cake,”, 2014. (Accessed 6 May 2019.)

Davis, Laura Mager. “China Heads: Glazed Porcelain Dolls from 1840 to 1890,” Quarterly Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Virginia. 48(2):73-87, 1993.

Derington, A.L. “Black Doll Fragment.”, undated. (Accessed 6 May 2019.)

Ewbank, Anne. “The Haunting History of ‘Frozen Charlotte’ Dolls,”, 4 March 2019. (Accessed 6 May 2019.)

geschenke2015. “Frozen Charlotte: The Creepy Doll that Became the King Cake Baby,”, 6 March 2019. (Accessed 6 May 2019.)

Gordon, Lesley. “Toy Dolls and Their Ancestors,” In: Gordon, Lesley, A Pageant of Dolls, New York: A.A. Wyn, Inc., 1949.

Hall, G. Stanley & Ellis, A. Caswell. A Study of Dolls, New York: Kellogg & Co., 1897. (Originally published in Pedagogical Seminary 4: 129-175, 1896.)

Lima, Tania Andrade. “The Dark Side of Toys in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” Historical Archaeology 46(3): 63-78, 2012.

Shepard, Nina B. “A Collector’s Evaluation of Old Dolls,” In: Johl, Janet Pagter, Your Dolls and Mine: A Collector’s Handbook, New York: H.L. Lindquist Publications, 1952. (pp. 304-305).

Smith, Elizabeth Oakes. “A Corpse Going to a Ball: A Ballad,” The Neopolitan (Naples, New York), 27 January 1841, p. 1. (Author listed as “Mrs. Seba Smith.”)

Smith, Seba. “A Corpse Going to a Ball,” The Rover: A Weekly Magazine of Tales, Poetry, and Engravings, Also Sketches of Travel, History and Biography, New York 2(15): 225, 9 December 1843.

St. George, Eleanor. “Penny Dolls and Frozen Charlottes.” In: St. George, Eleanor, The Dolls of Yesterday, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948, pp. 39-44.


© Bonnie Taylor-Blake


  1. Your piece got cited in the Washington Post today (Dec 8, 2019) where they totally ignored your basic theme about the legend being applied years later. There’s some interesting comments raising questions about the integrity of the writer. Sigh.

    Good history here. I was interested to see why they were called “bath dolls,” because they floated! Nice.

    • Thanks for letting me know, Bruce, though it’s so disappointing that The Post of all things is passing along the faux history of the doll! In any event, I appreciate your contacting me about this

  2. It astonishes me that the Post is citing this page in an article that you have preemptively debunked on this page. That’s one for the record books. (Hi Bonnie! Great article.)

  3. The citations you place seem to suggest that within generational oral memory the dolls were associated with the ballad, and were called Frozen Charlottes. I own several–they do not float and they have pink cheeks associated with hypothermia. In these passages, the very authorities you cite seem to be implying that the dolls were so named, and that even if originally simple intended bath dolls from Germany, they acquired this name before the writers of the 1940s wrote about them, historically. Because it did not appear in print does not mean it was not part of the oral culture.

    In almost every 20th century citation you use, the authority is not referring to a contemporary naming of the doll, but to the name the dolls carried in earlier generations. It seems that in oral history, at least, which would have been still resonant for writers in the first part of the 20th century, the dolls were remembered to be named thus. If you read your own citations again in this light, they seem to argue for this appellation for the doll, not against it. The warnings against naming doll-types to inflate their value do not focus on Frozen Charlotte in particular, either.

    “Two “Frozen Charlotte” dolls, one an 8-inch doll and the other a 4-inch doll in a small iron cradle, are prized by Mrs. Pelly. Frozen Charlotte dolls were made as illustrations for the many-versed ballad telling of a girl who went out with her lover on a cold winter night although not properly clothed. The girl was frozen to death, Mrs. Pelly explains. (The Globe-Gazette, Mason City, Iowa, 25 November 1950, p. 16.)

    My favorite of this group — because of the folk story connected with it — was the smallest and cheapest and practically every little girl in the early 1900’s owned one, according to [doll collector] Miss Schuette. She was called the “Frozen Charlotte” and she served as a warning to all vain young ladies (an early example of applied psychology?) She refused to wrinkle her first party dress by wearing a wrap on a cold winter night and froze solid on her way to the dance! (The Green Bay [Wisconsin] Press-Gazette, 1 November 1955, p. 10.)

    As the story [of Fair Charlotte] was passed along from wagging tongue to receptive ear, it came to be known as the Ballad of Frozen Charlotte, emphasizing the fact that she ended up frigid as well as rigid, and soon inspired the limited manufacture of toy dolls, made of china and all in one immovable piece, which naturally became known as Frozen Charlottes. (The Victoria [Texas] Advocate, 6 November 1960, p. 3.)

    The collector also has several “Frozen Charlotte” dolls. These dolls were inspired by a poem popular at the time they were made. The poem tells how a young man took Charlotte to a party one cold winter night in a sleigh. Charlotte was too proud to wrap up in the blanket and by the time they reached the party she was frozen to death. (The Northwest Arkansas Times, Fayetteville, 24 October 1962, p. 6.)”

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my analysis, Stanley.

      I should note that two mid-century authorities on doll history and doll collecting are very clear that the use of “Frozen Charlotte” for these dolls was a then-modern thing, that the name wasn’t original to the dolls themselves.

      Although I value and understand the phenomenon of oral tradition, I’d also note that an academic survey of how children of New England (and sometimes their parents) that was published in 1897 does not mention at all a connection between these small penny dolls and the tale of Charlotte, who froze on her way to a ball. These authors recorded how these girls (and their mothers before them) interacted with and viewed their dolls. Nowhere is “Frozen Charlotte” mentioned. The overarching popularly presented theme of our understanding of how Victorians viewed these dolls is that they used them didactically, as a means of instructing their children to obey their parents and to avoid vanity. And yet there’s no evidence that 19th-c American parents did this.

      While I appreciate what you’ve pointed out about the three excerpts you’ve presented, I should also note that it’s also natural to retell something one has learned from “an authority” (in this case, other doll collectors) without looking more closely at one has been told. The ballad and poem of Frozen Charlotte were well known to most Americans (especially in the NE United States) in the first half of the 20th century and — for the same reasons it does to us now — it just “makes sense” that these rigid, white dolls were connected to the folksong and poem.

      Importantly, however, there’s no historical evidence for such and, while personal anecdote and oral tradition are always important considerations, we can’t truly call a suspected 19th-century connection between the dolls and a ghastly tale as authentic to the times.


  4. I had one of these when I was about eight years old. I called her “Alice” and I loved her. I kept her tucked into my pocket and took her out to talk to her. One day I decided to tuck her into the cuff of my cardigan so no one would know when I spoke to her. The cuff was too small, and Alice fell out – onto the tiled floor….poor Alice.
    That was sixty five years ago and I still miss her. Every time I go into an antique shop I look for her “sister”.

    • Thank you for this, Ann. There’s something very special about the relationships we had with our dolls, stuffed animals, and other childhood toys. Thanks for sharing that and I’m sorry about Alice! (BTW, I think lots of these dolls are sold on eBay and similar, so perhaps you can find her “sister” there. Good luck!)

  5. Thank you, Bonnie. This is valuable research. But what the earlier doll experts heard or knew is likely based on more than willful invention or early marketing. The 1940s are after all nearly a century ago now, and their connection to the generation before was direct. I’d add that the “vanity” and “listen to your mother” themes are not the only themes associated with the dolls. The Frozen Charlotte tradition (stories, ballads, the possibly retroactive naming of dolls) is a New World occurrence. The Frozen Charlotte story also speaks to the dangers of the cold and still fairly wild American and Canadian landscapes. Even if it cannot fully account for the popularity of the dolls, there is still the popularity of the story itself and its other expressions. And a “vanity” and “listen to your parents” story would be in keeping with, not opposed to, 19thc morality and themes, as would be anxiety about the climate and still rugged surroundings. I don’t think German comfort with nude bathing can account can fully account for it.

  6. PS. Your work is really interesting but it still begs the question of why these dolls would come to be known as Frozen Charlottes only in the 20th century, after the vogue for the dolls had passed.

    • Thank you for your kind words and your additional comment. I’d ask you to look again at the observations on this by doll historians/collectors who wrote about these dolls in 1948 and 1952 (St. George and Shepard). They’re in the analysis above. St. George, in fact, says she as a child only knew these dolls by “penny dolls” and “twenty-five-cent dolls.” She speculates, as does Shepard, that “Frozen Charlotte” was applied sometime in the 20th century.

      And I do understand your point, that perhaps “Frozen Charlotte” was a hold-over from the 19th century that just didn’t appear in print and only survived in oral tradition. However, I also point to 1897’s academic work *The Study of Dolls* (above), which fails to mention this kind of interesting doll-play. (And the fact that I found no 19th-c advertisements for dolls that touched on the legend or the name.)

      In any event, this is certainly an interesting to think about and I welcome additional thoughts.

  7. It’s very strange–not only the fashion for the dolls had passed, but also for the ballads, etc. The story in the 20th century is no longer well-known or current, and only then the name gets official currency applied to the dolls. I agree the projection of the moralizing and the macabre onto the Victorians is overdone, but they were also partly so. There were many fashions that kept death nearby. And death was not separated from daily life the way it is today.

  8. Fascinating article; thank you!

    I have to shake my head at that first article attempting to debunk the original newspaper piece, though – it seems such a major assumption that nobody in their area would continue a ball if one of the invited guests passed away on their journey! It’s rather … what’s the word I’m looking for? … I don’t know.

    More than anything, I’d say it feels as though whomsoever wrote that first response had a very inflated and arrogant idea of the virtue and empathy of their own community, and an astounding degree of self-assurance, to express that as a valid reason that other people ought to doubt the veracity of the tale. I hate the term “virtue signalling”, but that’s what it feels like, honestly. And I don’t believe for a moment that nothing like that would ever happen or that it never *has* happened – the death of a single guest causing the hosts of an expensive, pre-planned event to cancel it on the spur of the moment, I mean.

    I’d like to think people could be that decent in spite of the money they’d lose, but even now I know so many people who would not have cared, and have seen plenty of historical instances of such apathy mentioned elsewhere.

    I agree it’s unrealistic that her partner might have failed to notice his lady’s impending death of hypothermia for the full duration of a two-hour, twenty-mile journey in a horse-driven sleigh, but at the same time, it’s not impossible – he might have been the one driving, after all, and that’s a distracting task in such weather. So I wouldn’t discount that part of it all entire, but it’s the tone of the rebuttal that makes me want to throw something at that person. *wink*

  9. I recently learned of the Frozen Charlotte on Youtube coming from the Mudlarking community. They search river banks for odds and ends lost in the past. As all of your references were in American sources, I can’t help wonder what a similar UK search would find.

    • Thanks for this, MarkB.

      Yes, I tried looking in British sources, though I admit that — given that I’m American — what I have access to is somewhat limited, even despite my affiliation with a pretty good American university.

      I do believe that the larger theme holds that it was 19th-c and early 20th-c Americans who made a connection between these small porcelain dolls, which originated in Europe, and the American ballad/poem/legend/anecdote of the mid-19th century. I couldn’t find evidence that this connection was authentic to Victorian America.

      Did it evolve in Victorian England (and other bits of the U.K.)? Maybe, but I would think that Victorian Brits were already well familiar with these porcelain dolls from Germany and known that these had been in use as bath toys and otherwise just inexpensive playthings. Although “A Corpse Going to a Ball,” the original 1840 anecdote (with a nameless couple) was published in British newspapers and the like in the 1840s, I haven’t (yet) found evidence that the poem/ballad, which had given the young woman the name Charlotte, was especially popular in the U.K.

      I’m always up for new evidence, though, especially contemporaneous evidence (e.g., ca. 1840-1920), so if you or I or someone in the mudlarking community over there unearths it, I’m all ears!

      Thanks for your comment and your interest in this weird little subject.

      — Bonnie

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