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  • History in a Box: Milton Bradley’s Myriopticon
  • James Marten (bio)

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“The Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama of the Rebellion.” From the collection of Historic Northampton Museum and Education Center, Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo by Brian Ogilvie. [End Page 4]

The deadliest war in American history helped spark the career of one of the most important game makers in the United States. Milton Bradley, a Springfield, Massachusetts, draftsman, print-maker, and designer, entered the game industry just before the Civil War with his popular The Checkered Game of Life. After the war broke out, he produced several card and trivia games for children as well as portable versions of checkers and other games for soldiers. In 1866 he created The Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama of the Rebellion.1

Panoramas had been popular in the United States since the late eighteenth-century, when artists and promoters began offering travelogues to the Holy Land or down the Mississippi through a series of paintings on a canvas hundreds of feet long and several yards high that slowly scrolled from one reel to another. The Civil War inspired northern and southern entrepreneurs to create panoramas with patriotic, technical-sounding names for exhibition to audiences throughout the Union and Confederacy. Northerners could see the “Grand Panorama of the War,” the “Polyrama of the War,” “Norton’s Great Panorama of Recent Battles,” the “Diorama and Polopticomarama of the War,” “The Mirror of the Rebellion,” and “A Cosmorama of Battles of the Civil War.” Southerners could view Burton’s “Southern Moving Dioramic Panorama,” “The Grand Panopticon Magicale of the War and Automaton Dramatique,” and Lee Mallory’s “Pantechnoptemon.” A number of proprietors updated their exhibitions with additional battle scenes as the war progressed. Most panoramas included a spoken narration, while many were accompanied by music. The score to Stanley & Conant’s “Polemorama” featured “the Rattle of Musketry—the Booming of Cannon, mingled with the tumultuous noise of the deadly conflict.” Life-sized or scale models of soldiers and ships stood or lay before the moving pictures, theatrical explosions and smoke raised the excitement level, and the strategic use of front- and back-lighting could change scenes [End Page 5] from night to day or from peaceful reveries to violent confrontations before the audience’s eyes.2

Panoramas were just one part of the war culture that emerged throughout the United States and Confederacy. Like their great-grandchildren in the 1940s, young Americans incorporated the war into their everyday lives, forming “boys’ companies,” following military campaigns in the maps provided by daily newspapers, raising money for soldiers with backyard fairs, and consuming war stories in juvenile magazines and books. The panoramas were no different. A Massachusetts boy named Willie Kingsbury created his own by coloring illustrations from Harper’s Weekly and pasting them together. As he rolled the series of war scenes from one wooden spool to another, he narrated the events they portrayed to young neighbors and cousins.3

Although it did not appear until after the war was over, the Myriopticon was part of this integration of childhood and war. Less than a foot square, the mini-panorama’s crude but colorful drawings—produced by Bradley himself—were turned from one reel to another inside a sturdy cardboard box gaudily decorated as a theater with red, white, and blue bunting and other patriotic flourishes. The package included everything a lucky owner needed to put on a show: pre-printed tickets, a poster just like the advertisements for adult panoramas (“This Splendid Work of Art is Painted on Nearly 1000 Square inches of Surface, And represents a great number of the most interesting and important events of the war”), and a narration that could be read aloud. The two dozen pictures—which, according to a company history, were intended to be back-lit by a lantern or candle and shown in a darkened room—featured the bombardment of Fort Sumter, fairly generic battle pieces, camp scenes, stretcher bearers carrying wounded men to an ambulance, the recreation of a famous photograph of “contraband” families posing in and beside a large wagon, and the evacuation of Richmond. A jaunty sense of...


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