A dear and darling doll
Archaeologists found pieces of twelve dolls during the Market Street Chinatown excavations in the mid-1980s. This doll has curly, black hair, which was common for dolls made in Germany and England in the 1800s. Its hands and feet are missing.
This one was discovered in a trash pit near stores and businesses. We can imagine that children in a merchant’s family may have played with the doll, and threw it away after it broke.
His Charlotte was a stiffened corpse
This doll was made in one piece. Its hand, feet, and head could not move like many other dolls. Manufacturers called these dolls “Frozen Charlottes,” after a popular 1843 American poem written by Seba Smith.
In the poem, a girl named Charlotte is invited to a New Year’s Eve dance with her boyfriend. She refuses to wear her coat because she wants everyone to see her pretty dress. When they finally arrive at the dance, Charlotte’s boyfriend found that her hand “‘twas cold and hard as stone”:
His Charlotte was a stiffen’d corpse, And word spake never more!
Historian Connie Young Yu believes that a local German or English immigrant may have given this doll to a Chinese child as a present, perhaps for Chinese New Year. Cross-cultural connections like this would not have been unusual in the Market Street Chinatown.
During the 1800s, San Jose was home to people who emigrated from many countries. Chinese American children in the Market Street Chinatown attended public schools with children from around the world, and people from all ethnic backgrounds visited the Chinatown to shop, conduct business, and eat at Chinese restaurants.
More than a toy?
A tiny Frozen Charlotte doll like this one cost about one penny during the 1870s and 1880s. The dolls were sold naked, and children – especially girls – were taught to sew clothes for their dolls. This helped them learn an important skill that they would need as adults.
The Frozen Charlotte doll pictured below is at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. This doll wears a home-made dress. Perhaps children in the Market Street Chinatown stitched up outfits like this for their own dolls!
Building a doll family
Children in the Market Street Chinatown may have also played with Chinese-made dolls. The dolls in this photo are from the Qing Dynasty era (1861-1908), the same period as San Jose’s historic Chinatowns. They belong to historian Connie Young Yu’s daughter, Jessica Yu.
The dolls represent the Chinese family ideal: many generations all living together, from babies to grandparents. Children learned to imagine the dolls together in the courtyard of a fancy Chinese home. Maybe the Frozen Charlotte doll became part of a doll family like this one!
Sylvia Eng: The doll in the cake (video)
“There Was a Chinatown Here” by Market Street Chinatown Archaeology Project (Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, Stanford University, and History San Jose) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.