Molly Fisk: Frozen Charlottes

A few years ago, I went back east to visit my cousins. I’ve been doing this since I was born, my mother in San Francisco being very attached to her sister, who lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts. We visited every summer when I was a kid, ran wild in the salt marshes, shucked an enormous amount of corn for the 8 cousins and 4 parents in the family, and slept soundly on screened-in porches in a pile, like exhausted puppies.

But it’s only been as an adult that I’ve learned to go mucking. Isn’t that a lovely word? Full of onomatopoeia: the sound being like the action it describes. Mucking is when you go out into the Ipswich River at low tide, barefoot, right at a wide corner below the South Street Bridge, and look for treasure. The sound your foot makes coming out of the slick mud is what I mean by onomatopoeia. A slurping, sucking, wet-but-not-entirely-liquid sound as your toes wiggle the mud out from between themselves and you pull on the convex shape of your arch.

Back in the day, which extended from 1750 to at least 1900, Ipswich residents threw their trash into the river. This was common behavior and not as bad as it sounds, since there was no plastic packaging then, and everyone composted. Paper or fabric wouldn’t last a season, and wood was usually saved for burning. What mostly ended up in the river were glass, clay, and porcelain, and over time it all washed down to the ocean, the edges softened by water and mud, some things disappearing forever and some remaining only in shards.

This wide corner of the river captured a lot of the bits and pieces, and gives them back to us sometimes at low tide, especially after a storm. My cousins Michael and Donald are the mucking experts in the family: They’ve found perfume bottles intact, sometimes even with stoppers, the bowls of clay pipes, delicate hand-painted pieces of tea cups and saucers, colored glass, metal odds and ends, and even a few of the prized “Frozen Charlottes.”

Charlotte, in the old folksong, was a girl who didn’t follow her mother’s advice, and left off her coat on the way to a ball so her party dress wouldn’t get wrinkled. She consequently froze to death. Originally from a poem by Seba Smith, the tale’s been immortalized in the ballad “Young Charlotte,” by William Carter. The dolls are teeny (1 to 4 inches) unglazed porcelain, and not jointed: They’re “frozen” into position, hence the name, and were originally made as “Victorian bathing dolls,” for children to play with in the tub.

My cousins tell me they were also put in tea cups to absorb the heat so you wouldn’t burn your mouth. Wikipedia says they were sometimes baked into cakes for the birthday girl to find. Being only a fair-weather historian, I don’t really care what they were for. That they existed at all and can be winkled up through the mud with my bare toes centuries later makes me incredibly happy.

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  • Nora Brossard May 21, 2017 at 9:21 am

    A delightful story, and reminds me of Rhode Island summers shucking corn, running around in cornfields, playing in the waves, and sleeping on screened-in porches.

  • Susanna Gaertner May 20, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    This morning’s local paper once again full of prominent bad behavior, breakfast with doom and gloom. Along came this sweet story to restore one’s faith in the joys of discovery, the delights of language, the persistence of memory.
    I agree with Tara: best story ever…thank you, dear Molly.

  • Wendl in Manhattan May 20, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    I almost didn’t read this, thinking it would be a dessert recipe & I’m not into sweets, but–hey, anything Molly writes about is pretty rewarding. Surprise, it was about a tragic damsel and the eponymous dolls. Learn something every day!

    • hillsmom May 20, 2017 at 3:35 pm

      So I too thought it was going to be about a dessert recipe, and almost didn’t read it. However, I know better than to miss one of Molly’s essays. Thanks for sharing. =^..^=

  • Beverly Bussey May 20, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    Lovely story. My son I would go mucking in New Jersey out in the fields and down by the stream that fed the reservoir, and even in our backyard; as the house was built in 1875. We would find old bottles, marbles, bits of ceramic and square nails. We just called it “out hunting”. We would pretend we were Indians and try to walk very quietly, so as to not be observed. Great memories.

  • Tara Dillard May 20, 2017 at 7:50 am

    Best. Story. Ever.

    Thank you for knowing to write it.

    • Molly Fisk May 20, 2017 at 12:51 pm

      You’re welcome! To certain people, Frozen Charlottes are a thing. I didn’t know this until I went mucking, but now I see them everywhere… 😉