These Popular Dolls Came To The U.S. In The 1800s, But Few Have Heard Their Haunting Origins

Those staring eyes. That pale skin. The immovable limbs. No, we’re not describing the latest Hollywood horror icon. We’re actually talking about porcelain dolls. Specifically, Frozen Charlottes. Because despite their hellish appearance, these tiny things became a staple of many an American kitchen. But few bakers, or anyone else for that matter, know that these china babies have a sinister backstory. And it’s all to do with blankets – and death.

These days those little porcelain dolls have mostly been relegated to the kitchen drawer. But, back at the beginning of the 20th century, Frozen Charlottes were absolutely everywhere. Despite their enormous popularity, though, their eerie origins were all but forgotten. So how exactly did the dolls become a permanent fixture in American homes?

Well, there’s a good chance that the glossing-over of their creepy origins played a significant part in their popularity. Although we see them as super scary, during the Victorian era they were seen as the very picture of innocence. But it wasn’t just their perceived purity that drew in consumers.

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Purchased for just pennies apiece and manufactured in huge quantities, Frozen Charlottes were perhaps among the first mass-consumed items. Used in baking, as gifts or ornaments, the little porcelain dolls became a shared cultural touchstone. Everyone, it seemed, owned at least one of the creepy-looking china babies.

As the decades wore on, those Charlottes became a sort of all-American heirloom. Passed on and handed down again and again over the years meant that, perhaps, even their familial origins became obscured. And given that they were made from the 1840s until the 1920s, that’s a lot of porcelain dolls doing the rounds.

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During the early 20th century, though, the popularity of the Frozen Charlottes dwindled. Resigned to the oddities section of history, their tragic backstory was lost to time for many years. At the beginning of the new millennium, however, the little porcelain dolls are once again enjoying a surge in interest.

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The Frozen Charlottes’ story began in 19th century Germany. Back then they had a very specific, much soapier purpose. Indeed, they were conceived as a children’s toy. But the tiny porcelain figures were generally used to liven up an activity that many children despise.

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Yes, it seems that during the Victorian era, parents had trouble keeping their kids clean. For some reason, children often complained – loudly and at length – about bath-time. As adults we can appreciate the luxury of shutting the bathroom door and soaking away the stresses of the day. But youngsters really don’t seem to get it.

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So to help solve this thorny issue, Victorian-era Germans came up with a novel idea. What children needed was a distraction, something to take their minds off the tedious chore of bathing. Or at least something to make them enjoy the water more.

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Nowadays, kids prefer a bath that includes toys. From rubber ducks to swimming aquamen, a soak in the tub simply isn’t complete without some playtime. And back in the 19th century, little porcelain children very much passed as toys. These china babies float, and apparently, that was all the distraction needed. Ah, simpler times.

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The dolls, named “Badekinder,” meaning bathing dolls, became extremely popular in their native Germany. Molded in one piece, the limbs were fused on. So given the heights Victorian engineering reached, these toys were simplicity itself. And perhaps that nostalgic construction played its own part in their success.

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Because the dolls’ low cost made them cheap to produce. Sold for pennies, the Charlotte was easily replaceable if lost or broken. Made from a type of porcelain known as bisque, the china children came with different levels of decoration, which probably helped keep the consumer price down. But it also made them creepy, as we’ll soon find out.

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The basic model was entirely plain, all ghostly-white porcelain and chubby, featuring little detail. Then there was a partially decorated version, featuring eyes, hair, and mouths, all adding to the creepy look of the dolls. Although some came clothed, they varied from full dresses to just fancy socks and nothing else. Yes, they were basically nude. And we haven’t got to the sinister bit yet.

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Aside from the creepy bath toys use, back then Charlottes were not connected to anything remotely grisly. In fact, they became so ingrained in German culture that, when Deutschlanders began migrating to American in the 1850s, the porcelain dolls came along for the ride. And that’s where the story takes a different turn.

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When the Charlottes pitched up Stateside, they found themselves even more popular. But it was for vastly different reasons. Where once the nightmarish dolls had been innocent bath-time playthings, they now became part of more community-minded pursuits. At least, they did for a while.

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Instead of going in a bath of hot water, Americans favored dropping the Charlottes in cake batter. Why would anyone want to bake a creepy baby into a delicious dessert? It appears to stem from the ancient tradition of putting coins into baked goods. Centuries ago, the Brits would add a sixpence to their Christmas pudding before baking it. The diner who received it not only made some money but also gained some luck.

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By the early 20th century, however, it seems people had realized the health and safety implications, not to mention the financial damage, of adding money to food. Step forward the Charlotte. Yes, from it’s humble bath-time treat origins, the porcelain dolls now became a party favorite. And not just for Halloween.

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That’s right, baked into cakes turned Charlottes into tokens of good luck. Or, if you’re unlucky, a segue to more work. But that very much depends on where you are when you get a porcelain doll in your dessert. Down south, for example, it means fortune shines on you. In other parts of the country, though, china babies mean it’s your turn to make the next batch of sliced heaven.

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As in Germany, American production of the Charlottes was just as cheap, and they sold by the million. Added to cakes the country over, the dolls found their way into almost every American household. So those little porcelain figures had now entered the cultural lexicon of not one, but two separate countries. Not bad for a children’s bath toy, right?

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As a result of the dolls’ cross-continental appeal, around 150 years after they first hit the German market, they’ve once again become collectible. And while many survived the decades, far fewer made it through intact. So depending on the state of your family’s Frozen Charlotte, you could be looking at some fairly serious money.

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In addition to the range of decoration featured on the Charlottes, they also come in varying sizes. The smaller dolls, around an inch in length, were most common. But they could also be as large as 18 inches tall. So, if your family Charlotte is small and unpainted, it’s only worth a couple of bucks. However, this is not the same for all of them.

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In fact, if you’re in possession of say, a beautifully preserved, fully decorated 5.5inch Charlotte, the beers are on you. Examples in that sort of condition can fetch up to $500. Which is a pretty penny for something that goes in cake. But there are other facts relating to the dolls’ popularity that don’t get mentioned very often.

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The mark the dolls left on American popular culture is somewhat unique. Yes, in an age before anything approaching social media existed, these creepy little dolls reached into millions of homes. And it might surprise you to hear that they did it through tragedy.

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As we mentioned, German immigrants first began arriving in America around the mid-19th century. But their arrival – porcelain dolls and all – just happened to coincide with something that we all recognize today. In the 1800s’ equivalent of a viral video, a particular poem had captured the nation’s imagination. Yes, we said a poem. It was a really long time ago.

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The poem, written by Seba Smith, centred around the death of a young woman. The work was entitled “Young Charlotte,” and is not pleasant reading. Not because it’s poetry you understand, but because of the tragedy. It’s a tale of unheeded advice, capricious youth and dangers of sleds. And when it was originally published in 1843, it had an altogether different title.

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Smith’s poem first appeared in Maine newspaper The Rover under the endlessly alluring title, “A Corpse Going To A Ball.” In its many verses unfolds the story of a spoiled young woman who chooses vanity over warmth and dies as a result. The work was so popular that it was turned into an even more popular folk ballad. But here comes the eerie bit: Charlotte, the unfortunate heroine, wasn’t fictional.

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Because Smith himself claimed that his poem was based on a news report he’d seen a few years earlier. The tragic story was originally published in the New York Observer in February 1840. And it recounted the events that allegedly took place on New Year’s Eve, 1839, somewhere around New England.

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The story goes a little something like this. Charlotte, raised by wealthy parents, had a penchant for the finer things in life. Dresses, jewelry, cloaks and other adornments only enhanced her already considerable beauty. She was, it seems, a woman who liked to turn heads wherever she went.

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Knowing that the local New Year’s Eve formal dance was fast approaching, Charlotte reportedly chose her finest gown for the festivities. She was determined to be the belle of the ball that night and wanted her outfit to be perfect. Which meant topping it off with what we can only assume was a très chic silk cape.

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But the weather that holiday season had taken a wintry turn, and on the night of the ball, it was deathly cold. When Charlotte’s beau, Charles, appeared to escort her to the soiree, he was atop a horse-drawn sled. Open to the elements and extremely vulnerable to the icy wind, the young woman would be absolutely freezing without a coat or blankets to snuggle under during the journey.

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According to a version that appeared in The Washington Post, after seeing the conditions outside – it was snowing – Charlotte’s mother begged her to wrap up. Given that it would be a 20 minute journey to the ball, she feared for her daughter’s health. She said, “Put this blanket around you for it is a dreadful night and you’ll catch your death of cold.”

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The stubborn Charlotte, though, refused, “Nay, mother. Nay. To ride in blankets all muffled up, I would never be seen.” Despite further entreaties from Charles that she use the blanket from the sleigh, the young woman continued to refuse warmth. Plus she didn’t want to smell like a horse, which is fair enough.

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Having so carefully picked out both outfit and cloak, Charlotte reiterated her belief that she was wearing more than enough clothes. And with that, the pair began their one horse open sleigh ride in the snow. At some point, during the journey, the clearly observant Charles notices that his date has gone a bit quiet. After some prodding, the young woman whispers, “I am exceedingly cold.”

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Charles then made something of a fateful decision. Rather than say, give his freezing beau a blanket, he instead pushed on to the venue – at a higher speed. Needless to say, if Charlotte was cold at regular speed, she’d have loved the new, faster, colder change of gear.

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The pair eventually made it to the ball, where Charles immediately discovered that Charlotte was unresponsive. He then carried her into the ballroom and laid her on the, we can only presume, cold floor, in a poor attempt to revive the young woman. Surely she’s just extremely cold, right? Wrong. So, so wrong.

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While it can be true that slowly warming up people suffering from extreme cold can be effective, that wasn’t the case for poor Charlotte. She was, by that time, far beyond the reach of any level of warmth. The young woman had quite literally frozen to death during that New Year’s Eve sleigh ride. And were it not for Smith, she would have stayed in the 1840s.

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Anyway, mostly the poem and later the folk song served to caution women against vanity. They also had the added bonus of underlining why you should always listen to your mother. And with that, Charlotte’s grisly end captured the country’s imagination. But more importantly, she was at the forefront of popular culture at exactly the same time that ships began arriving from Germany.

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And when Americans laid eyes on the tiny porcelain dolls, so pale, perfect and, you guessed it, frozen, they made the connection immediately. Thus began the second chapter in the history of the china figures. Now known as Frozen Charlottes, they were no longer used as toys. Plus, thanks to a dark sense of humor, the creepy china children started to come with an even creepier accessory.

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Indeed, the Frozen Charlottes now came with their very own coffin. Yes, you read that right. As if they weren’t creepy enough to begin with. We’re very much crossing our fingers that, if those dolls ever went into cakes, that the caskets were removed first. Otherwise, there’ll be some very disturbed grown-up children somewhere. And possibly with casket parts inside them.

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So the next time you find a creepy porcelain doll in your cake, or see one on a mantlepiece, spare a thought for that poor girl. Because you’re actually commemorating the tragic death of a young woman who was a little too picky about smelling like a horse. Or wearing a coat. Stay warm guys!

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