Objects of Delight
2: Encounters with miniaturisation
The following narratives link miniature objects with my personal experience (Figure 1). Their function is to suggest that these small-scale prosaic artefacts play disproportionally important roles in our lives, and by extension, the lives of those who interacted with miniature things in the past. Since archaeologists do not have time machines, and are only able to discover a scatter of physical clues about past lives, they necessarily fill gaps in knowledge with stories. Thus the archaeological interpretation of a Victorian parlour uses objective clues to write an interesting, comfortable, believable but subjective fiction. For example, I use a deliberately bent knife to dig mortar from between bricks and a screwdriver with which to stir paint. Similarly, a Victorian may have used that bent knife we found on an archaeological site for some purpose completely different to what we interpret or suggest as its function. When confronted with mute evidence we are forced to create plausible stories, based on context and parallels, to cover our lack of definitive knowledge.
In this section I utilise subjective elements such as emotions, touch and speculation that I discuss further in the Methods section. My encounters are heavily influenced by my own background as an archaeologist and an individual engaged in experiencing miniatures (Figure 1) in ways that may mirror the experiences of nineteenth century people. Archaeology has perhaps suffered as the result of a dialectic between the subjective experiences of individuals: Susan Stewart's somatic material memories (Stewart 1999), and the objective, but "dead", descriptive taxonomic cataloguing of material culture.
A Dinky dustbin lorry
For my sixth birthday, in 1954, I received (perhaps I chose) a toy garbage truck, what I would call a "dustbin lorry", my very first Dinky toy1. At the time my family lived in the Yemen, at Steamer Point, Aden, looking out over the Red Sea and the never-ending convoy of ships arriving to take on fuel and leaving, their tanks and bunkers full as they headed for the Suez Canal or the Indian Ocean. The contrast between a very prosaic, very British, Bedford lorry and the exotic, arid, troubled place in which we lived didn't strike me at the time, of course, and the little vehicle became just the first of a small collection of cars and trucks destined to collect dust from floors on three continents as my family moved back to the UK and then to Australia. Eventually of course the dustbin lorry disappeared, probably worn out and battered by the robust attentions of my siblings and I. But I never forgot it. It was perhaps significant that this first delight should be in a utilitarian vehicle, and an unglamorous one at that, rather than a more attractive motor car from the Dinky range.
In April 2105 I spotted a scarred but complete example of the same model dustbin lorry in an antiques centre in York, and I bought it (Figure 2). I had been looking for this for a while, not obsessively, but whenever I came across a sales display of old die-cast vehicles. I could probably have bought one, perhaps cheaper, online, but somehow discovering one in a shop seemed more "authentic" (whatever that means); it was certainly more satisfying. The lorry has two curved sliding upper panels through which, in its full-scale original, the contents of dustbins would be tipped into its bed, and a swinging rear flap. Turning a small handle raises the truck bed, allowing the contents to slide out through the flap. As I waited for my credit card to be approved I closed and opened the panels and felt, re-experienced, revisited, a sensation that I hadn't registered for…how long…50 years…longer?
My memory of handling the toy as a child had survived, but now I had added, or reconnected, a physical dimension to it — metal sliding against metal, the weight of the lorry, its chipped paint rough against my fingertips. Why was this connection important enough for me to pay to repeat it? It hasn't changed my memory of playing with the original on the concrete in front the tree-shaded bungalow at Steamer Point, a place not seen since and now caught up once again in conflict (Figure 3).
Perhaps the dustbin lorry is a memory materialised. It has provided me with a step-change in power, power over my own memories, an increase in what I might call the "voltage" of those memories, a transformation. It seems that for me at least, this miniature vehicle acts as both a facilitator of memory and as a transformer.
My acquisition of a timeworn, 60-year-old, toy demonstrates some of the fascinating aspects of miniature things. Firstly, that I remembered such an unspectacular object so clearly. Secondly that that memory encouraged me to search out, purchase and curate its manifestation. Thirdly the relationship between an adult and a "childish" object that had and has no use other than satisfying a personal desire. Fourthly, that the object reflects something of myself back to me. It is on display in a private space — my study. It is there mostly for me to see. It is an element of my self-identification. And finally, just as in the heat of Aden so long ago, I take delight in it.
My original research into miniaturisation was inspired by the presence on my desk of an object (Figure 4) that I had unearthed in the garden of my then home in Nottingham — the key ("Type 2") of a Triang clockwork car, a tinplate miniature plaything probably dating from the early 1960s2. I realised that although it could be identified and dated, its significance was not so easily describable.
In searching for the identity of the key, I discovered that all the 40-year-old examples I located of Triang clockwork cars (and their keys) were owned, collected and cared for, not by children, but by adults (mostly male). Many cars bore the scars of having once been playthings, but others were in pristine, unused condition, still retaining their original packaging. All these objects were no longer playthings, if they had ever been. If they had been found in an archaeological context, they would have almost certainly have been labelled "child-related," called "toys" and given only the broad-brush meaning(s) associated with objects to which this low "value" has usually been ascribed (Sofaer Derevenski 2000, 7). Adults delight in small, "childish," things, as demonstrated by three members of my immediate family.
My mother was someone constrained by her own personality as well as by the times through which she lived and the personality of my father. She was a talented artist who sold her paintings in the USA, but had neither the confidence nor the support to pursue this as a career even when she had the opportunity to do so. She dreamed of being at the centre of a vast, communal, extended family, but instead bore four children who deserted her to follow distant paths scattered across the UK and the globe. As she grew older my mother increasingly used her creative abilities to make, decorate and dress large families of tiny dolls, who dwelt in fantastic, chaotic shoe-box dolls-houses crammed with mismatched 'antique' furniture, with decorative and often eccentric touches added from her own imagination and memory. The dolls became surrogate children, and the shoe boxes fantasy homes. I am certain that these miniature objects provided comfort in representing my mother's frustrated dreams of a close-knit family over which she could rule, benevolently, as matriarch.
My sister has spent much of her life as a single parent, and for more than two decades has suffered from MS. She has never had a job, and at present lives independently in a small suburban semi-detached house in a nondescript small town in Lincolnshire. Although externally her home is unremarkable, inside, every surface is scattered with a myriad of much-loved and well-dusted ornamental objects, the majority of them miniatures, some of which originally belonged to my mother, but many others that she has acquired herself. These objects range from cheap (and sometimes fake) Victoriana through 1960s Matchbox toys3 to Wallace and Grommit 'dolls'4. For someone with limited mobility, the world is significantly constrained. My sister's miniatures bring the world into her home, giving her the power to experience and have control over at least an important part of her environment.
A skilled woodworker who has nevertheless spent his working life in roles where his creativity has been restricted to his spare time, since his retirement my brother has been able to brush the dust from the tools in his workshop. He lives in a tiny terraced cottage. On his study wall is a small glass-fronted case that contains several shelves filled with tiny figures. These represent an unhurried collecting activity that began 40 years ago and still continues (two tiny figurines destined for the case wait on his kitchen windowsill). Each miniature cost a pound or two and often less. There is a theme — they are all cake-top ornaments made from bisque porcelain (see below). A few are painted, but most are uncoloured. To me, his collection represents the influence of our mother, something that has also infected my sister and myself, and the delight concentrated in small things. My mother's unachieved wish for a close family led her to create a miniature replacement, a world of tiny people, to provide company and over which she could wield affectionate power. Her interest in small-scale things was communicated to and continued by several of her children, though each had different driving forces behind their collections.
The Hucknall Miniaturists Society
In a room off the almost-empty gloomy bar of Hucknall Conservative Club eight ladies sit around a table (Figure 5). Before them is a scatter of small pots of glue and an assortment of raffia and craft materials. This evening's task is the manufacture of miniature baskets, 1/12th scale. Between instructions from the workshop leader, the group gossip, but also revisit recent achievements, both collective and individual, in exhibitions of dolls-house miniatures. Their finely detailed creations are often nostalgic and sometimes visit distant pasts of which the members have no memory, or are steeped in affection for family life. A shared delight in objects smaller than their thumbnails brings these ladies together every Thursday evening to create miniature worlds.
It seems that miniaturisation might be a basic human activity, one that is not only displayed on the mantelpiece, but can be engaged in socially. The Miniaturists develop individual skills, use imagination and creativity, learn and teach. They also gossip and drink together. Their friendships are, in the end, encapsulated in tiny baskets, miniscule dioramas.
A mantelpiece in Wales
Two young women turn empty gazes towards the newspaper photographer and me, eyes set in faces slackened by hardship (Figure 6). I become a voyeur, peering uninvited into their home and noting its materiality, much like George Godwin in Plumtree Court. One of three infants frowns in my direction, leaning forward in an armchair that has a stained and torn cover. The women could have been beautiful. A coal fire burns in a smoke-stained tile-surrounded fireplace. The background is of patterned wallpaper. Clothing hangs from the ceiling to dry.
The photo is captioned Seven people living in one room 1964/65 Merthyr Tydfil. Men are significantly absent. It's a scene of almost cliché poverty, and the use of black and white photography emphasises the room's gloom. It is, nevertheless, an object world5. On the mantelpiece stand an ashtray, a miniature beast, probably a puma, and an alarm clock. People in the household smoke and lead lives that require attention to time keeping.
They also choose to place an image of a handsome, lithe, slinking animal, one that can symbolise courage and power, on their mantelpiece (Figure 7). In this case the miniature is probably moulded from plastic, but that doesn't matter. The puma represents something that is probably absent in this overcrowded household but is probably desperately wished for — power. The miniature animal on the Welsh mantelpiece to me symbolises defiance and resistance to the difficult situation these seven people face. It shows that a tiny, prosaic object can speak of big, important things.
In 2015, the Visual Resource Centre in Manchester School of Art was threatened with closure. The Centre consisted of a small room crammed with metal filing cabinets, the drawers of which contained 35mm transparencies slotted into plastic sheets. To communicate our opposition to the closure, we students were asked to "adopt" a slide; to find a transparency and write about it on a specially created blog. I came across not one but these two related images (Figure 8) in a drawer labelled "taste".
The photographs were taken on the same occasion, of the same location, a (presumably) double-fronted shop. There is no other information on the Kadachrome slide mounts other than a reference number and the date, August 1973. The windows appear to be of a junk shop that was displaying a vast number of small objects.
The array of knick-knacks is an impressive one, and includes a full range of miniatures. These have been carefully arranged, which makes the display unusual. These two slides formed a rare and hugely valuable record of an historical archaeology site and of an assemblage of artefacts captured and fossilised on that warm day in the early 1970s.
In one window there's a veritable miniature harras of horses all galloping in the same direction, regardless of relative scale (Figure 9). To the right, a gossip of old ladies is observed from afar by a weary old ceramic man. There is at least one rosy-cheeked boy (the humans are all turned 90 degrees relative to the horses), and, along the very front, there's a row of wonderful miniature oddities — a pair of tiny telephones, three mischievous mice, two strange mushroomy objects, a ceramic candle, three tiny beer steins, fake fruit…oh that the view had been panoramic! What marvels lay beyond the slide's cardboard frame?
In the other window, a fantastic visual cacophony of cheap and cheerful miniatureness (without horses), again all looking toward the left (Figure 10): a chaotic cuteness of children, dogs, elephants, birds, a squad of squirrels, cheerful country folk, chipmunks, milkmaids, cats and artificial fruit. Hundreds of big eyes gazing beseechingly at passers-by. In the background is a tumble of carving sets, bottle openers and china bells. Wonderful!
The slide wasn't captioned, but that doesn't matter. It is a precious record of a moment in time, of the objects people loved and hated, desired and discarded, of what people regarded as good and bad taste in the recent past. The photographs were probably taken by a member of Manchester School of Art's teaching staff. I wonder who was lecturing about "taste" in 1973?
The windows are carefully arranged, the objects sorted in to types, the types divided between displays. Within each section, scale is ignored, though larger items are positioned towards the rear. That the miniatures face in the same direction (to the left of each display) is perhaps significant, but it is challenging to my sense of symmetry that the mass of objects in both windows face in the same direction!
These objects reminded me of the "small things" in some of the photographs in William Billingham's significant collection Ray's a Laugh (1998). In these, several shelves of miniatures act as a backdrop and audience to the dramas being played out in the mid-ground. Billingham places us again as voyeurs, uncomfortably witnessing performances of desperate, dysfunctional intimacy.
Somehow, in the midst of a chaotic life, "Big Liz", Billingham's mother, created a collection of bric-à-brac (Figure 11). Within what Billingham called her "carnivalesque" "psychological space" (Billingham 2009) I interpret those mute objects displaying a significant element of her character, a side of her not immediately obvious amongst the cigarette butts and empty beer bottles.
The two transparencies tell of loss and absence — the destruction of a resource centre, the extinction of a photographic technology, the disappearance of a junk shop and the anonymity of the subject. These are familiar challenges to archaeologists. They record a mass of miniature artefacts that also have been lost, yet which still are able to inform us about taste and delight. And these windows filled with "useless" things link to the shelves of ornaments that act as backdrops to so many domestic performances, good and bad. And at one time, each one of those hundreds of miniature things was deseried, acquired and delighted in.
A tipper wagon from Ghent, Belgium
In the summer of 2015 I spent a pleasurable couple of hours in Ghent's MIAT museum of industry and technology. On my way back into the city centre I passed an antiques centre, doing desultory business on a warm and sleepy Sunday afternoon. In a display of vintage railway rolling stock I noticed a single wagon that I could afford to buy — an O gauge (1:45) tipper wagon manufactured by Marklin in Germany before 1946 (Figure 12). I handed over €15 and carried on, triumphant.
The wagon is a relatively crude representation of its original. It is made from tinplate, held together by tabs fitted through slots and bent over. The body of the wagon is held upright by a simple U-shaped double-ended rod that if moved from its upright position allows the body to tip sideways, dumping its load (presumably into some form of hopper). The wagon's paint shows evidence of a fair degree of use. Beneath the truck's body is a label in several languages indicating where it should be oiled.
The wagon is firstly a personal souvenir of Ghent, something that will trigger memories of my visit. It also has a number of other meanings for me, as its collector. It will join a small number of other railway artefacts on display in my study, including a much smaller tipper wagon in HO9 scale (1:87). This collection is evidence of a continuing interest in miniature railways and of a so far frustrated dream of constructing a model railway of my own. As a tinplate railway artefact it reminds me of the long-lost Hornby O gauge clockwork railway my brothers and I would construct around the floor of our bedroom, the track winding amongst the legs of our beds.
The wagon, despite being of a reasonable size, is hugely simplified. This reflects the limits of technologies at the time of its design and manufacture. A present-day example would use plastic injection moulding techniques allowing much more accurate detailing. This in its turn is being replaced and refined by 3D printing technology (see Meyer 2013 for an early example of a laser-scanned and 3D printed miniature of a railway locomotive). Despite its simplicity, when it was created the wagon would have satisfied the demands of its target purchaser. It was robust enough to be handled roughly and used on track that was usually located on the floor. It had a semi-automated action (a trackside trigger would strike the lever to operate the tipping action). Clockwork trains had limited controls, so derailments, both accidental and deliberate, were frequent. And perhaps for reasons some of which might be similar to my own, these inaccurate, battered objects are still enthusiastically and sometimes obsessively collected, with locomotives especially achieving high prices amongst specialist retailers and auctions.
At first glance, the tipper wagon is simply the nostalgic indulgence of a middle-aged male. It serves no purpose, is not part of a model railway, and is not in the least accurately detailed. Its principal function, however, is as a souvenir, a memory of a visit to Belgium, an exotic, unusual, non-British object that combines a personal interest in industrial archaeology with enjoyment of travel.
A girl with Staffordshire dog and parrot
Standing on a fringed stool, the girl wears a check skirt, dark blue blouse and red sash (Figure 13). On her head, a tilted cockade hat. She holds out food to a parrot that is perched on a clock face surrounded by grapes and vine leaves. A slightly deranged-looking Staffordshire dog rolls its eyes. The time is forever 11:17. I pounced on this "flatback" figure in a Devon charity shop. It is not a thing of outstanding beauty. The under-glaze painting is crude, the girl's nose is slightly damaged, and the whole thing might be what one antique shop calls "faux-Staffordshire". The figure speaks to me of several relevancies: it is something of an entrée…I discuss parrots6 and Staffordshire dogs7 later in this research. The grapes tell of the exotic. The non-clock is a reaction to poverty, the desire for a real timepiece assuaged by the purchase of a cheap ornament. The whole object reminds me of the colour these figures brought to nineteenth-century interiors.
Very few miniatures are accurate representations. My flatback includes an unrealistic dog, an approximate parrot, a non-functional clock in the midst of a grape vine, an unlikely stool and a girl with dots for eyes. The whole is painted with daubs of colour. It demonstrates that the object is communicating ideas. No-one expects to find a parrot perched on a clock in a grape vine being fed by a girl standing on a stool being watched by a dog. Neverthless the miniature scene conveys something satisfying. Quite what that is depends on the viewer.
Two ballerina clocks
Two figurines demonstrate the bizarre themes that can often be expressed in miniaturisation (Figure 14). In real life, one rarely comes across a ballerina leaning on a clock. I discovered two in local charity shops. The dancers, though long-legged, are otherwise somewhat amply proportioned. They are, of course, fantasy women, all legs and busts.
The figurines have experienced different "social lives". One shows evidence of water damage. Now, their batteries replaced, they keep approximate time on a shelf in my study. They represent a desire to be associated with litheness, with idealised female beauty, with an exotic art form (few of those who would purchase this ornament would ever get to experience a live ballet performance). That the design includes a cheap electric clock refers back to the flatback I discussed above, and may also represent a grounding — the wish to show that the purchase was not completely feckless.
It is worth comparing the two clock-leaning ballerinas, who share a semi-utilitarian function of showing the time, with the two ballerinas in Figure 15. These deliberately grotesque pigs in pink underwear are unreal, yet have to be believable to "work". We have to suspend disbelief, and provide these characters with a modicum of being. They comment on unlikely, if not impossible conflicting ideas, on the humour in the unlikely combination of porkiness and agility. They are slightly obscene, but only if we grant them the power to be so, otherwise they are merely a pair of pink plastic lumps.
Charity shop shelves often display clusters of miniature objects that have no equivalent in real life — miniscule bears and mice that live in tiny teapot houses, jolly pigs playing guitars, cute kittens with wide smiles, grinning dogs dressed in human clothing. These outlandish objects, like my ballerina-clocks and ballerina pigs, rely on our conspiring with them to give them "life". We have to "believe" in an obese ballerina pig, grant it the possibility of being able to exist, to dance, in order to find it amusing, or perhaps horrifying.
A very young lady in miniature is evidence that small things can be mildly erotic (Figure 16). Another charity shop purchase, she sits with sensual abandon, on a bed, her skirt tugged up to reveal stocking tops. She appears to represent a gypsy, and is therefore associated with ideas of passion and prejudice, wildness and wantonness. She is reading letters, and we are put in the position of being the person who wrote them, of imagining their content, and of being her lover. That she seems to be only just of legal age to be the recipient of our attentions and lascivious gaze can only inject elements of risk, of the excitement of behaviour that would be frowned on.
In acquiring this object we are perhaps able to indulge in a fantasy without attracting opprobrium. It can be explained away as simply an ornament that is telling a story (a pretty girl reading letters from her lover). But in the original artwork by Christine Haworth on which this figurine is based8, the girl appears even younger. We might be being encouraged to think of underage sexuality. Miniatures of scantily-attired youngsters of both genders are (and were) common, though their meanings are often disguised behind their appearance as fairies and the like.
The archaeology of charity shops can reveal a spread of human emotional responses to miniature objects, from laughter through to lust. This figure, in which a tiny, attractive and alluring girl, her clothing in disarray, gazes at us, is, despite its diminutive size, erotic. It represents an important vein of enabling fantasy that runs through these objects, and allows us a glimpse into the minds of those who owned similar things in the past.
"A crude white porcelain figure:" From Sandhills to Sandpoint
Amongst the eclectic and eccentric collection of miniature "specimens" on display in my study stand two tiny naked female babies. Made from glazed, unpainted bisque porcelain, with minimally-sculpted features, and less than five centimetres tall, one has, like the Venus de Milo, lost most of her arms, while the other is complete (Figure 17). One was a gift from my supervisor, the other found in an antique store in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. They are, in the words of archaeologist Eleanor Casella, "crude white porcelain figures".
Casella found a "crude white porcelain figure" on the site of Hagg Cottages in Sandhills, Alderley Edge, Cheshire: it is a naked child, its limbs immovable, its extremities broken off. It would have been about 5cm tall when complete (Casella 2004) (Figure 18). A tiny crude white porcelain figure of a naked child less than 2cm tall, its limbs immovable, was found on the Thames foreshore in June 2016 by a "mudlark" (Figure 19). A metal detectorist, exploring the site of the 1863 battle of Champion Hill, found the remains of a carpetbag filled with unused ammunition and a crude white porcelain figure of a naked child (Bearss 2005). When the wreck of the steamship Arabia was excavated in 1988 a carpenter's chest was discovered in the hold. Inside the chest, wrapped in a sock, was a crude white porcelain figure of a naked child (Arabia Steamboat Museum 2011). Renovations at the Randell Cottage, in Christchurch, New Zealand, revealed a crude white porcelain figure of a naked child hidden in a wall (Museum of New Zealand 2009) (Figure 20). In "Little Lon" Casselden Place, Melbourne, Australia, a notorious "slum", archaeological excavations uncovered a crude white porcelain figure of a naked child (Smith and Hayes 2010). Recent archaeological investigations of Willa Herman's Bordello, in Sandpoint, Idaho, produced two crude white porcelain figures of naked children (Swords 2012) (Figure 21).
These tiny, usually naked, figures are a mystery to which people have offered solutions, but each solution is different and anecdotal. Archaeologists regularly unearth them in every "westernised" country, and equally regularly identify them as children's playthings. They are probably not playthings. By definition they are stiff, unmoving, hard, shiny, uninteresting, easily swallowed, easily broken (many of the excavated examples have lost their forearms, which jut out at right angles to their bodies).
Until recently these unremarkable objects were nameless, hence Casella's description. Because of their immobility, in the US they have acquired the name "Frozen Charlotte", adopting the title of an early nineteenth century song Young Charlotte9. They have also called been called "Penny Dolls," though I think that a penny is too high a price to pay for this crude lump of bisque porcelain, and there were plenty of jointed "Penny Dolls". Sometimes called "Pillar Dolls" or "Pudding Dolls", in Germany they were called "Badepuppen"10 ("Bathing Babies") and "Nacktfrosch" ("Naked Babies"). Researching these two latter titles online is problematic for sadly obvious reasons, as is another common identification "China Babies".
These figurines range in size from smaller than 10 mm up to 10cm (some similar but much larger figures are up to 50cm tall). They are almost all naked, and sometimes ambiguously-gendered. More obviously male figurines are sometimes referred to as "Charlies". Many others are definitely female.
A minority of the figures have painted eyes and hair, others, especially those from Germany, have a moulded bonnet, while a few are moulded and sometimes painted, as fully dressed. They seem to have been manufactured between 1820 and 1914, in Germany and England, though they may have been made in other countries. Those survivors that are sold by the dozen on eBay and etsy web sites are mostly seconds and wasters from a waste dump on a German pottery site. But those found in archaeological contexts present a puzzling picture. None of the following suggestions as to what function these diminutive creatures performed have been backed by solid evidence.
The figure would have had a multi-layered skirt, on which people using dip pens would wipe excess ink (Figure 22). The anonymous maker of the example from Godey's Lady's Book used "a black china babyabout three inches tall"11.
In polite society, blowing on one's tea to cool it would be frowned on, so the small figure would be dropped into the cup to absorb some of the heat.
Teapot crack preventer:
A figure would be dropped into the teapot before adding water, the theory being that the heat absorbed by the figurine would avoid the teapot cracking.
The figure would be used as a basic form on which to sew dolls' clothes. Given the diminutive size of many of these figures, this is unlikely.
The common identification of these objects as children's playthings is arguable. The figures were often small enough to be easily swallowed, and since their limbs couldn't be moved, they would be difficult to dress and pose in meaningful positions, and would thus be very uninteresting playthings. There were many other "penny dolls" available that had moveable limbs. An exception could be the larger "Bathing Baby" type, which was intended to be float on water. Their discovery in adult locations – for example taverns, a brothel, a carpenter's chest, the collection of an elderly lady, San Francisco harbour — also makes this connection doubtful.
It is suggested that the figures were placed in a pudding or cake mix before cooking, and that finding the object when eating the dish would result in good luck or fertility. It would also likely break a tooth.
It is unlikely that these figures were used as cake-top decorations. A parallel group of tiny figures specifically manufactured for this purpose can be identified. It includes a variety of animals and other designs more appropriate for ceremonial occasions (Figure 23).
Sewing needle lubrication
Beeswax was often used to lubricate sewing needles, especially when sewing stiff or thick materials. Tiny figurines were dipped repeatedly into molten beeswax, and once this had hardened it could be used to coat needles (Figure 24). This might explain the presence of the "Frozen Charlotte" in the carpenter's chest found of the Arabia.
There appears to be an association of "Frozen Charlotte" type figures and miniature coffins. In recent times this seems to be more creative than sinister, and is probably connected with the "Goth" movement. In the early twentieth century, tiny figures in coffins may have represented a ghoulish sense of humour (Figure 25).
In the nineteenth century, with its high death rate amongst very young children, tiny figurines may have memorialised infant deaths. Although post mortem photographs are well known, there is little evidence of the memorialisation of dead children in other ways.
A possible clue to the roles of these figures might be found in a small number of carved wooden bottles. On the exterior of each bottle is a short sentence that reads "Matrimonial Prospects at [a place name]" I have come across bottles from San Francisco, Ashbury Park (New Jersey) and "So Boston".
The bottle is corked, and when the cork is withdrawn, attached to it is a string, hanging from which are two or more tiny ceramic (and sometimes base metal) figures, often with at least one figure being black (Figure 26). Other examples feature two figures hanging from the cork of a small stoneware jug and four black figures issuing from a tiny wooden phial. A St Louis World's Fair bottle can be dated to 1904.
In an article on "gag boxes" (for example Figure 27) Mardi Timm, a collector of "novelties", mentions "little wooden pill bottles, with a cork or some kind of stopper in the top. One of these older ones from the early 1900s says 'Matrimonial Prospects, Handle With Care' on the outside. And when you pull the cork out, there's a string attached to it and on it are little metal women, who are naked. It's a strange, sexist thing" (Hix 2012).
The exact meaning of these "Matrimonial Prospects" objects is not clear. All examples found so far originate in the US. It is not clear whether they were suggesting a series of spouses or a series of offspring. The figures were often female. Some were all black; others included both black and white figures. They may have suggested that one had poor prospects of matrimony, represented by a string of crude dolls, or they might be making a racist comment.
Robin Bernstein quotes a writer remembering the mid nineteenth century when "very small dolls of black china were supposed to be the proper thing for servants in dolls houses" (Bernstein 2011, 205). Whether the "very small dolls" were of the Frozen Charlotte type isn't clear, but apart from the designation of black doll = servant, it implies that the very small dolls had white equivalents.
The widespread finds of these small figurines (on all continents), and the adult nature of many of their locations (harbours, brothels, taverns, prisons, ranches, a battlefield etc.), suggests that they may have been carried as good luck charms12. The equally frequent occurrence of ceramic dolls' limbs indicates that these may have served the same function (they are available today, made into pendants on the etsy web site).
I am fascinated by these objects. That they might possess some deeper meaning is suggested by their similarity with much older artefacts. The German figures bear a striking resemblance to medieval "Kruselerpuppen," small pipeclay or earthenware figurines wearing an elaborate Kruseler cap (Figure 28). The functions of these figures are uncertain but it has been suggested that they were associated with christenings, weddings, votive offerings or pilgrimage (Schmudlach 2008). Even more ancient parallels can be found amongst prehistoric figurines. For example, a 20,000-year-old figurine discovered in Mal'ta, in Siberia (Hitchcock 2016), could easily be mistaken for a Frozen Charlotte at first sight (Figure 29).
These tiny, crude miniature ceramic figures tell a more complex and mysterious story than their popular interpretations suggest. They demonstrate a possible link with artefacts from the very distant past, whose functions we can only guess at and argue over, and with medieval objects whose uses are again unclear. This stresses that archaeology, even of a period as recent as 150 years ago, can present interpretive challenges and risk knee-jerk responses. At the end of my discussion I am no nearer a definitive explanation of a "crude white porcelain figure," but am even more fascinated by its possibilities.
I found my Venus in my local Oxfam shop. She cost £1.99, and needed a wash. Made of resin, she stands 15cm tall. She's different to the original, apart from her miniature stature (Figure 30). True to the theory of miniaturisation, the sculptor has omitted much detail, especially of the folds of the drapery and her hair. Her shape has changed too — her torso is shorter, or her legs longer, in proportion to her whole body, than the original (Figure 31). Her waist is more pronounced, her breasts smaller, her shoulders straighter. This could be identified as a more "modern" body shape. Her face is very different (Figure 32), more rounded, her eyes proportionally larger and rounder, her mouth smaller, her nose (damaged in my version) smaller…a younger face. She seems to gaze more directly at the observer, unlike the slightly pensive gaze of the original (Figure 33). She demonstrates how a miniature, though based on a very well-know original, can communicate subtle aspects of the expectations of the period in which it is manufactured.
Miniature Venuses were one of the most popular mantelpiece ornaments during the nineteenth century, and I discuss this further below. My Venus, with her "modern" touches, demonstrates some of the challenges of miniaturisation, as well as suggesting that we should look at the miniatures not only as representing an ancient statue, but also subtly reflecting contemporary influences.
Last updated December 2020
Dinky Toys were die-cast metal miniature vehicles manufactured in Liverpool by Meccano Ltd between 1935 and 1979.
Triang manufactured a range of model railways and other children’s toys from 1946 to 1972, when the company was bought by Hornby Railways.
Matchbox Toys were die-cast miniature vehicles introduced in 1953 and manufactured in various forms until the present.
Wallace and Grommit were popular animation characters.
Written in 1843 by Seba Smith (see Lord 1966 and Higgins 2002). The song was also sometimes entitled A Corpse Going to a Ball.
"Bathing Babies" were only glazed on one side, so that they would float in water. They appear to be considerably larger than "Frozen Charottes".
For the racial and abuse implications of this seemingly innocent object see Bernstein 2011, 206.
For example, during the 1994 Mini Metro excavations in San Francisco, 34 fragmentary Frozen Charlottes were found (Anon 2002). Frozen Charlottes were found in Willa Herma's Bordello, Sandpoint Idaho (Swords 2012), Oaklands Gaol (Fidge 2013) and Los Penasquitos Ranch House (Mirsky 1993, 179).