Charles Dickens in Syracuse, March 1868

While searching and for old Syracuse books one day, I came across old books about Charles Dickens’ stay in Syracuse, and was quite surprised at his take on his hotel room, the food, and the wine. I guess I always think about hotel rooms and food being better and more comfortable in the old days, but I guess this is not always the case. I’m not sure which hotel he stayed in, some sources say he stayed at the new Vanderbilt House, some sources say the old Syracuse House.



From Early Landmarks of Syracuse:

The Vanderbilt House was opened March 18, 1868, Cook & Sons being the proprietors. It was the first hotel in the city [Syracuse] to be furnished with parlor mantels and grate fires. Charles Dickens was the first guest. When he came to Syracuse March 9, 1868, to give his readings of “The Christmas Carol” and the Bardell-Pickwick trial, at the Wieting Hall, he was allowed to take a corner room directly over the parlor in order that he might have a grate fire in his room, even though the hotel was not ready for its guests.

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Wieting Opera House, corner of S. Salina & Water Streets
From the collections at Onondaga Historical Association
This can be purchased from OHA from their online photograph store

The following is written by George Dolby from his book Charles Dickens as I Knew Him: The Story of the Reading Tours in Great Britain and America

A heavy snowstorm with a terrific gale of wind had been raging all the week, and as all of the trains were some hours, and some of them a day, late in their arrival, we determined on starting a day earlier than originally arranged on our journey to the North-West, so as to avoid the chance of being delayed by being “snowed up;” and after a most unpleasant journey we arrived on Saturday evening, March 7th, in the city of Syracuse (breaking our journey at Albany). The circumstances under which Syracuse was visited were perhaps not the most favorable. A thaw had set in, rendering walking almost an impossibility, but a walk was taken later in the day to view the city, and the conclusion Mr. Dickens arrived at with regard to Syracuse was that it was a most out-of-the-way place, and looked as if it had “begun to be built yesterday, and was going to be imperfectly knocked together with a nail or two the day after to-morrow.” There were no people to be seen in the streets, and it was a matter of surprise to us that Mr. Osgood had contrived to sell all the tickets for the Reading on the following night; but as this was Sunday it occurred to us that the population were all in church. The hotel was unbearable, and the bedrooms so bad that we were afraid to go to them at night. So we sat up playing cribbage and whist (double dummy) until, as Mr. Dickens wrote to Fields, “neither of us could bear to speak to the other any more.” In the same letter he described his waking moments on the morning after his arrival: “The awakening to consciousness this morning on a lopsided bedstead, facing nowhere, in a room holding nothing but sour dust, was more terrible than the being afraid to go to bed at night.” The bill of fare (the printed carte de jour) was curiosity in itself, as was also the Irish waiter told of for our service. The bill of fare included such delicacies as “Fowl de poulet,” “Paettie de Shay,” “Celary,” and a “Murange with cream.” On my asking the Irish waiter what a “Paettie de Shay” was he said he would go and inquire, and came back with the startling intelligence that “it was the Frinch name the steward gave to the oyster patties!” The wine list was also curious, and included such vintages as “Mooseux,” “Abasinthe,” “Curacce,” “Maraschine,” “Annisse,” and “Table Madeira.” A bottle of the former had been tried on the evening of our arrival, to wash down some buffalo which had been prepared for our supper, and was described by Mr. Dickens at the time as a “tough old nightmare;” but as the wine displayed an utter absence of grape we resolved on leaving that in the future, and flew in desperation to the “Table Madeira” (which would have done discredit to good honest British wine of the ginger or cowslip species). Then we tried the “Margeaux,” which, if we had persevered with it, would have terminated in colic. The only good feature in the wines was the price, for there was nothing under three dollars a bottle, and as the brandy (“Jersey lightning”) was impossible, we had to fall back on our own flasks and small traveling stock for our stay in Syracuse.

The following morning Mr. Dickens’s arrival in the city had become known, and the depression of the previous day and the badness of the hotel were forgotten in the geniality of the inhabitants of Syracuse, who all seemed desirous of contributing something to his pleasure and amusement, during the short time he had to pass there. Although there were no people to be seen in the streets on the Sunday of our arrival, there were plenty at the Reading at night, and a most delightful and appreciative audience too, taking all the points of the Reading and its delicate touches as well as had the audiences in the other cities. The receipts were quite on an average with the more pretentious places.

The [Syracuse] Standard carried lengthy accounts of Dickens’ reading and reported it to be a sellout. People came from all over. The Standard reported:

At precisely eight o’clock a lithe, energetic man of medium figure came upon the platform at a brisk gait. We think the generality of people were rather disappointed in the size of the great novelist. We had thought of him as a large man. But you see at once the humor, the pathos, the intellectuality, the _road humanity of the man traced in his features. A moment only of disappointment and then you are satisfied with the appearance of the great novelist.

Mr. Dickens wasted no time in preliminaries. He made the announcement briefly and immediately commenced the “Christmas Carol.”

“Marley was dead to begin with,” came in a rather rapid, careless tone, and then followed the reading of that wonderful story. . . . . His face in repose, we have endeavored to describe. It is a thoroughly good face – a face that you would trust on a dark night, miles away from any habitation. In action, it is a face you cannot help loving. It is a laughing face. It is a lightsome face. Mr. Dickens is a superb actor. He is entirely sympathetic with his audience. He seems in love with his own genius, and we don’t blame him. The presence of Charles Dickens in Syracuse is an event long to be remembered by all our citizens.

And in case you’re dying to read more about Charles Dickens’ visit, here’s another article:

1953-09-13-PS-D-7-Charles Dickens Visit Made Impression on Bellboy Here
From Syracuse Post-Standard, Syracuse, NY, Sunday, September 13, 1953

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The Syracuse House (near the Erie Canal which used to run through Syracuse)
From the collections at Onondaga Historical Association
This can be purchased from OHA from their online photograph store



Charles Dickens as I Knew Him: The Story of the Reading Tours in Great Britain and America, by George Dolby, T. Fisher Unwin, Londong, 1887, pp. 276-279

Early Landmarks of Syracuse, by Gurney S. Strong, Printed by the Times Pub Co. (1894), pg. 37

The Post Standard, Syracuse, NY, Dickens Failed To Appreciate Salt City of ’68, Sunday, September 13, 1953

The Post Standard, Syracuse, NY, Charles Dickens’ Visit Made Impression on Bellboy Here, Sunday, September 13, 1953