Dickens In America: The Boz Ball

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If Chicago has reason for remembering Valentine’s Day, New York has reason, too, for remembering a famous, less grisly fourteenth of February in her own annals. For on that clay in 1842 Manhattanites threw sophistication and decorum to the East River winds and put on a public reception that was to be the talk of the town for many a Knickerbocker moon. The occasion was the arrival of a distinguished British visitor, the creator of Pickwick and Little Nell, and the event was the Boz Ball.

Charles Dickens arrived in America just two weeks before his thirtieth birthday. In the six short years since the appearance of the first anonymous number of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club , the young author had made the pen name “Boz” known throughout the world in a record-smashing leap from obscurity to fame. Though he had not yet written the novels most critics rate as his masterpieces, Dickens was already the most widely admired writer of the day. The Yankee excitement over his arrival knew no bounds. Even the idolized Lafayette, during his triumphal tour of America in 1824, had not received a warmer welcome.

Dickens and his wife landed in Boston on January 22, and the Bostonians set about wining and dining the famous novelist with an unprecedented lack of New England reserve. As accounts of events in the city soon popularly referred to as “Boz-town” reached them, envious New Yorkers determined to do something bigger and better than anything done by their rival to the north. A Philadelphia editor, noting the spread of the Boz mania, observed with unbrotherly sarcasm, “The Gothamites outnumber Bostonites and outdollar them and will surely outshine them.” And they did.

A formal committee was formed, whose members debated what was to be done in a long series of meetings which grew in heat and violence. A committee in Boston, after similar wrangling, had decided to make their official function a public dinner for men only, so that the occasion could be celebrated with the proper spirits. James Russell Lowell, representing a group with temperance principles, wrote a friend, “I proposed to have a dinner at which women should take the place of wine, and it was voted down by a very large majority.” Taking a cue from Lowell, certain members of the New York committee urged that it would be an insult to Mrs. Dickens as well as to the originator of Little Nell to exclude women from any proposed function and suggested giving a grand ball. Philip Hone, the former mayor of New York and one of the committee, recorded in his diary that finally, after a bitter battle between the “dinnerites” and the “ballites,” the ballites won, though the dinnerites went ahead with plans for a separate event.

The date for the ball was set for Valentine’s Day, and the place finally selected was the Park Theatre. The largest gathering place in New York, the theater had a capacity estimated at 3,000. Tickets were limited to that number and were sold at $5, with a price of $2 for extra ladies (not to exceed two to one party). The 3,000 tickets were subscribed for almost immediately; wealthy New Yorkers were soon offering as high as $40 for them without finding any sellers.

Then the committee began to plan the ball that was to outdo, outshine, and outspend anything of the kind ever given in America. Thousands of dollars were spent on the preparations and decorations. The stage was extended to cover the entire theater pit, making a ballroom 150 by 70 feet, with a runway to one of the boxes along which Dickens was to make his grand entrance. Medallion sketches of scenes from Dickens’ novels and of the Presidents of the United States were hung on the walls. An American eagle, with a laurel crown in its beak, presided over a huge portrait of Dickens. Elaborate chandeliers, hung by gilded ropes from the high ceiling, and innumerable candelabra made the theater a brilliant show. Flowers, draperies, 7,000 yards of bunting, and Hags and insignia of all the states added to the spectacle.

Central attraction of the evening (after Boz himself) was to be the series of tableaux vivants pantomiming scenes from the guest of honor’s novels. These, presented between dances on a raised platform at one end of the ballroom, included such scenes as “Mrs. Leo Hunter’s dress, déjeuner ,” “The Pickwick Club.” “The middle-aged lady in the double-bedded room,” “Mrs. liardell faints in Mr. Pickwick’s arms,” “Mrs. Bardefl encounters Mr. Pickwick in prison,” “The red-nosed man discourseth,” “Mr. and Mrs. Mantalini in Ralph Xickleby’s office,” “Oliver Twist at Mr. Maylie’s door,” “Little Nell leading her grandfather,” and—as the grand climax to the evening—the representation of “Washington Irving in England and Charles Dickens in America.”

Nor were the eyes alone to be feasted. Refreshments were prepared by 140 men and women, who worked three days and three nights, and served by GG waiters the night of the ball. One of the feminine guests fater wrote a friend that the crowd of g,ooo consumed—among other things—50 hams, 50 tongues, 28,000 stewed oysters, 10,000 pickled oysters, 4,000 candy kisses, and 6,000 candy mottoes. “I am afraid at this rate,” she added, “oysters will become very scarce.” Another report that 5,000 plates, 800 cups and saucers, and 4,000 glasses and tumblers were used gives a hint as to the relative popularity of the champagne, tea, and chocolate served.