One of the latest additions to our collection is a toy which offers a unique view of the Civil War. It’s a game, a history lesson, a home theater and a farce, all at the same time. So let me introduce “The Myriopticon, A Historical Panorama of The Rebellion”, its famous creator and how it all came about.
The creator of the Myriopticon was Milton Bradley. The same man whose name would become synonymous with popular games like Candyland, Twister, Operation, Jenga, Battleship and Yatzee, just to name a few.
Bradley got his start as a draftsman and he worked for a while designing railroad cars. But in 1860 he set out on a new career as a lithographer, creating and selling prints. One in particular, an image of Abraham Lincoln, proved to be very popular and profitable. But alas, Bradley’s Lincoln had no beard, so when the real thing began to grow facial hair, sales of the lithograph faltered.
He then decided to make a lithograph designed like a checkerboard with light and dark squares and gave it the title “The Checkered Game of Life”. A game with a morality theme where proper living would carry a player from Infancy to Old Age and the wrong choices would lead to Ruin. The game proved to be extremely popular and profitable with the initial print run selling out within a few months.
Bradley had found a new career path, but within a short period of time, sales began to quickly decline due to the Civil War. Initially he decided to stop production and turn his attention to making weapons, but advice from others convinced him otherwise. Soldiers in the field were looking for diversions to keep them occupied between battles and long marches, he was told. So he decided to make miniature versions of games including checkers, chess, dominos, backgammon and his Checkered Game of Life. He sold them for $1 each and since they were lightweight and easily carried, they were just the thing to boost sales again.
Another benefit he would get from the war, even if Bradley might not have realized it at the time, was the appearance of the war illustrations in magazines and newspapers. Views of the battles, participants, weapons and war-torn cities, most of them done by artists who were on the scene during the action or who spent time with troops in the encampments. Some of the drawings were accurate and others were not, but these depictions captivated readers and Bradley would find them extremely useful for his next big project.
After the war interest in educational pastimes began growing and Bradley took advantage of this momentum by creating a toy based on a popular style of entertainment called the Panorama. Shown as a theater production with curtains, lights and often music, Panoramas were large rolls of fabric with painted scenes. During the show, the fabric was slowly unrolled so one image at a time would be displayed while a narrator read a script to the audience. Some of the most popular presentations were based on battles and stories from the Civil War.
Bradley had his parlor-sized version of the Panorama available for sale before the end of 1866. His Myriopticon contained 22 drawings glued end to end with depictions of the Civil War from the fall of Fort Sumter to the burning of Richmond. Other images included the battle between the Ironclads U.S. S. Monitor and C. S. S. Virginia, camp life, freed slaves and a sharpshooter. Bradley did the artwork himself but some of the images look almost identical to illustrations seen in newspapers and magazines during the war.
The toy was a small cardboard box with an open back and a viewing window cut into the front panel and it was decorated with brightly colored lithograph paper depicting a patriotic bunting, theater curtains, musicians and two royal figures watching from the sides. Two wooden rollers inside the box allowed the user to move the drawings past the viewing window and the instructions encouraged them to place a candle or other light behind the Myriopticon to enhance the illusion that it was a theater performance.
Like a real Panorama, the Myriopticon came with paper tickets, an advertising poster and a script. The script was written by Bradley and it contained factual information as well as sly jokes and comments, and even some warnings to the audience to mind their step through the camp scenes as if they were present when the action was taking place. And of course, there were pleas for the audience to remain seated until the show was over.
Like most lithographed toys, our Myriopticon exhibits the wear and tear of use and age, but the colors remain bright and the rollers still work properly. Other examples of these toys are housed in other museums and private collections and they come up for auction from time to time. It is interesting to note that not all the illustrations are identical in the Myriopticons that still exist. There are several different versions of the Panorama. Whether or not this is due to the date of production or a grand scheme that Bradley may have had to encourage viewers to attend multiple Myriopticon presentations, I will leave that for you to speculate. As of yet, I don’t have an answer.
Another thing that comes to my mind is just how many of these toys may have gone up in smoke during the presentations. Cardboard covered with paper, wood rollers and Bradley’s suggestion of placing a candle or lantern behind the box during the show and you have the potential for some interesting special effects during the performance. Which may have been truly effective if it happened during the showing of the last image…the burning of Richmond.
To see our catalog record for the Myriopticon with photos of all 22 of the drawings, visit our website at www. Marinersmuseum.org. Click on the Explore button at the top of the screen and then choose Search Catalogs. You will be able to view our collection by putting in search terms or merely browsing. Thanks for reading our blog.