The story of Frozen Charlotte is a folk tale from the 19th century about a vain young woman who froze to death while traveling to a New Year’s ball in an open sleigh. The weather was bitterly cold that evening, and despite warnings from her mother to dress warmly, Charlotte preferred to show off her beautiful gown during the ride to the ball.
The story of Frozen Charlotte quickly captured the imagination of the American people because it carried two important messages: don’t be vain, and listen to your mother. The story was so popular that when porcelain bath dolls were introduced into the United States from Germany during the mid-1800s, they were dubbed Frozen Charlottes because they resembled small, white corpses. The male versions were dubbed Frozen Charlies.
The dolls sold exceptionally well. Apparently, a product associated with a frozen corpse is not bad marketing when the corpse is as popular as Charlotte. Some of the dolls were even sold in caskets and baked into cakes. Whoever received the slice of cake with Frozen Charlotte inside received good luck or special favor. The cake tradition continues today, usually with plastic dolls.
There is debate about the exact timing the dolls were dubbed “Frozen Charlotte.” While it’s widely believed the name association occurred in the 19th century, there is research that suggests it may have occurred in the 20th century.
The popularity of Frozen Charlotte dolls lasted for decades but slowly faded during the early 20th century. Many different sizes and styles of the dolls exist. Some have paint and clothing, but most don’t. The classic Frozen Charlotte doll is nude, manufactured in one piece with arms and legs molded to the body.
And because the dolls were made of porcelain, they survive the elements. So if you’re on a hike and notice a small, white face peering up through the dirt or sand, stop and check it out. It might be Frozen Charlotte, lost by a child over a century ago. Check out the photo below.
There are multiple versions of the story about Frozen Charlotte that have been published over the years. Below is my version, composed from story lines found in the poem, ballad and other tales about Charlotte.
Charlotte was a beautiful young woman who could not walk past a mirror without stopping to admire herself. She favored dresses that were low-cut so she could show off her lovely neck and shoulders, and she always enjoyed being seen by others, to bask in the compliments about her beauty that often followed.
She grew up in a wealthy family, an only child with a father who could afford to spoil her. And she took full advantage of his generosity by filling her wardrobe with fine dresses and accessories.
New Year’s Day 1840 was approaching, and Charlotte was excited about the upcoming ball. She picked out a gorgeous gown to wear, quite certain that no other woman would be her equal that evening. She planned to capture everyone’s attention as the belle of the ball.
Her beau, Charles, was scheduled to pick her up in his horse-drawn sleigh to escort her to the event, which was located in a nearby New England village. They would ring in the New Year together.
But when Charles arrived, the weather had turned very cold and windy. Snow filled the air, and he was bundled up with warm clothing for the long trip.
Charlotte greeted Charles at his sleigh without a coat. Surprised, Charles asked her to cover up with something warm, but Charlotte refused. She wanted everyone to admire her beautiful gown on the way to the ball.
Charlotte stepped up into the sleigh and insisted they leave immediately for the ball. Charles agreed, and off they sped into the dark, frosty night as Charlotte’s worried mother watched from her doorway.
Halfway through the trip, Charles noticed Charlotte was slumped over and shivering. He said, “Such a cold and blustery night like this I have never seen. I can barely hold the reins.” Charlotte responded faintly, “I am exceedingly cold.” There were five miles left in the trip, so Charles urged his horse to move faster.
When they arrived at the hall, Charles rushed around the sleigh to help Charlotte step down. But Charlotte did not move. He grabbed her hand and found it cold and stiff.
Charles quickly carried Charlotte into the hall and laid her down on the ballroom floor. Charlotte was motionless and did not utter a word.
It soon became apparent to all who watched that she would never utter another word because no amount of warming could bring life back into her frozen body.
In the end, Charlotte’s hope to capture everyone’s attention that evening did come true. But instead of being the belle of the ball, as she planned, everyone stared down at frozen Charlotte, the corpse of the ball.
In the weeks that followed, Charles was overwhelmed with tremendous grief knowing that the love of his life and intended bride froze to death sitting by his side. He died soon after of a broken heart.
Charlotte and Charles were reunited once again, buried side-by-side in their village cemetery.
Author’s note: I found all the Frozen Charlotte dolls and doll parts displayed in this article while hiking or digging for antique bottles. My most recent discovery, along a creek bed in Northern Virginia, was the motivation for this article.