Civil War: Panoramas of the Future

Panoramas of the Future: War, Industry, and American Moving Panoramas, 1840-1865
Jamie L. Jones

In Boston in 1846, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went to see a moving panorama that depicted three thousand miles of Mississippi River shoreline in allegedly “three miles” of painted canvas. Shortly after he saw the Mississippi panorama, he described its exhibition as a convenient form of travel itself: “The river comes to me instead of my going to the river….” Longfellow’s experience of the moving panorama performance was common, and audiences everywhere praised the moving panorama’s verisimilitude. A moving panorama is a proto-cinematic form consisting of one long painting wound on two spools and scrolled in slow motion before a stationary audience in a theater. The unfurling of the panorama was often accompanied by an explanatory narration or musical score. Lighting effects were often used to simulate weather and the passage of time. Moving panoramas are material objects, visual texts, performances, and complex multi-sensory events; studying them demands an interdisciplinary perspective.

In the nineteenth century, exhibitions of moving panoramas created spaces in which audiences could confront the most pressing concerns of the day: the consequences of industrialization and portents of Civil War. This paper enters into these questions by exploring three moving panoramas that depict whaling voyages. The American whaling fleet dominated the global industry, and whaling was central to the domestic economy. Whale oil lit and lubricated factory machines throughout the rapidly-industrializing nation. The period in which the whaling panoramas were most popular spanned the years of the industry’s peak production and a dramatic crash brought on by disruptions of Civil War. Whaling would never recover. This paper explores these panoramas as texts that manufacture nostalgia for a suddenly-disappeared industry and anxiety about the industrialized future.

I also read whaling panoramas into a Civil War context by comparing them to the more famous Mississippi River panorama described above. The Mississippi River panorama depicted a voyage through the north and south, each landscape bearing the imprint of its slavery politics—northern landscapes filled with industrialized towns, and southern landscapes with plantations and slave auctions. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier interpreted the Mississippi panorama as a vision of two possible futures.
The claim that moving panoramas were suitable proxies for travel raises profound questions about the way nineteenth-century audiences interpreted objects. Moving panoramas seduced viewers into believing that the invisible world—of the past, the future, the distant, and the imaginary—could be made visible and known through a multisensory exhibition. The embodied experience of viewing a moving panorama is central to understanding the panorama itself, but, poignantly, the experience of viewing the exhibition of a moving panorama is lost to scholars today. Very few panoramas are extant, and those that survive are too fragile to be exhibited, so historians must rely on fragmentary accounts and interdisciplinary methodologies. This paper combines material culture, visual studies, and literary critical approaches to consider the role of popular entertainments in shaping and resisting contemporary anxieties.

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One Response to “Civil War: Panoramas of the Future”
  1. David Brody says:

    This paper asks us to rethink the idea of popular entertainment and vision in the nineteenth century. I am curious about your claim about “scene breaks.” In the history of film, there is an ongoing fetishization of the fantasy of the camera that does not pause (see the rhetoric around Hitchcock’s Rope as an example). With this in mind, I am fascinated about your dicussion of the “ruse of visual continuity.” Could this ruse be found in other instances of nineteenth-century visuality? I’m thinking here of the work of Jonathan Crary and Michael Leja, as both have shed some light on this topic.

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