Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Nation on the Move

For a young nation yet to celebrate its centennial, the moving panorama gave the United States a perfect means of self-representation.  Russell & Purrington's Whaling Voyage 'Round the World dramatized the whaling trade, which for much of the nineteenth century provided the most common household illuminant of the time, whale oil. Transportation and trade were also dramatized in the various Mississippi River panoramas, as well as in amusements that replicated the experience of a passenger on a train, such as Hale's Tours of the World.

The exploration of the Arctic regions was the subject of dozens of panoramas, many of them detailing the career of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, who'd sailed north twice in search of the lost British explorer Sir John Franklin, before returning home and dying young. Many of these were actually narrated by members of Kane's crew.

Western expansion was another common subject, with panoramas extolling the virtues of California and Oregon, and dramatizing some of the challenges emigrants would meet along the way. Some specific groups, such as the Mormons, used panoramas to embody the sense that their westward journey was guided by divine providence.

Natural wonders, such as the Great Falls of the Niagara, or Mammoth Cave, were popular, as were political subjects; the former slave Henry "Box" Brown traveled with a panorama known as the "Mirror of Slavery," though eventually he switched to more general subjects. Still, it was to be the Civil War which, above all else, was the most popular and enduring subject, both of fixed great-circle panoramas and cycloramas, as well as of moving panoramas, from shortly after the end of the war through to the 1880's.

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