Last week I came across a photograph of an item that was, at one time, available for purchase on Etsy. A small, metal viewing coffin with the unnerving inscription, “Don’t talk so much.” From the viewing window a strange, pale countenance started out.
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.”
There is some debate as to wether Smith’s poem was simply a cautionary tale or based on an actual incident. Some historians claim that Smith stated he was moved to write the poem after reading a story in the New York Observer on Feb 8, 1840 in which “A young woman… was frozen to death while riding to a ball on Jan 1, 1840.” Whatever the origins, the poem and ballad served as a cautionary tale to young ladies about the dangers of vanity and not heeding your parents.
Young Charlotte is all dressed up to attend a New Year’s Eve ball with her beau, Charles, who picks her up in a horse-drawn sleigh. As Charlotte is leaving her mother warns her to wrap her blankets around her tightly, or else she will catch her “death of cold.” However, vain Charlotte is only concerned with people seeing her beautiful dress along the sixteen mile journey to the ball. The rest of the story, in true Victorian fashion is a bit of a romantic tragedy:
“How very fast the freezing air
Is gathering on my brow.”
With a trembling voice young Charlotte cried,
“I’m growing warmer now.”
And away they did ride o’er the mountainside,
And through the pale star light,
Until the village inn they reached,
And the ballroom hove in sight.
When they reached the inn, young Charles jumped out,
And gave his hand to her,
“Why sit you there like a monument,
And have no power to stir?”
He called her once, he called her twice,
She answered not a word;
He called all for her hand again,
But still she never stirred.
He stripped the mantle off her brow,
And the pale stars on her shone,
And quickly into the lighted hall,
Her helpless form was born.
They tried all within their power,
Her life for to restore,
But Charlotte was a frozen corpse,
And is never to speak more.
He threw himself down by her side,
And the bitter tears did flow,
He said, “My dear and intended bride,
You never more shall know.”
He threw his arms around her neck,
He kissed her marble brow,
And his thoughts went back to the place where she said,
“I am growing warmer now.”
They bore her out into the sleigh,
And Charles with her rode home,
And when they reached the cottage door,
Oh, how her parents mourned!
They mourned the loss of their daughter dear,
And Charles mourned o’er her doom,
Until at last his heart did break,
Now they both slumber in one tomb.
The Frozen Charlotte dolls were very small and typically made of porcelain. As they only cost a penny, most children could afford them, only adding to their popularity in Victorian households. At some point it became very fashionable to begin baking these tiny corpse dolls into birthday cakes or in the UK, in Christmas puddings, as a prize or party favor.
If I ever bake you a birthday cake, you can be certain there will be corpse inside. You’re welcome.
“Happy Remains of the Day” by William Powell Firth