The Historiscope

I’m fascinated by a visual device produced by Milton Bradley in the later nineteenth century called “The Historiscope:  A Panorama and History of America”. Swann Auction Galleries has one for sale in their upcoming auction. Here’s the description and an image: Printed hand-colored box, 5 1/4 inches tall, 8 1/4 inches wide, 2 1/4 inches deep, with long paper scroll on two spindles within, and mounted on a later(?) painted board; lacking wooden crank pieces and rear cover with caption information, otherwise moderate wear to exterior. The scroll is difficult to turn and has not been examined in full; sold as is. (MRS) [Springfield, MA?]: [Milton Bradley & Co.], circa 1870.

Historiscope Swann Auctions April 14

What fascinates me about this panorama is the early attempt to introduce some interaction into history instruction, although Jennifer Lynn Peterson (in “The Historiscope and the Milton Bradley Company:  Art and Commerce in Nineteenth-century Aesthetic Education, Getty Research Journal, No. 6 (2014): 175-184) informs me that each box came with a script, an “eight-page dramatic description of all the images in the moving panorama, characterized by a lively tone and filled with numerous attempts at humor”. So maybe it was a rather one-way “show”. The other thing that interests me is what the selective/reflective nature of this lens: any historiscope much necessarily reflect the society which produces it rather than the “history” which it purports to reveal. If we could turn the scroll of this Swann lot, we would see 25 iconic images of early American history, including the landing of Columbus in the West Indies, Pocahontas and John Smith, the Pilgrims’ arrival in Massachusetts, and Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. (Another contemporary Milton Bradley product, the Myriopticon, focuses solely on scenes from the Civil War, or “Rebellion”). Would the same scenes have been chosen in 1920, or 1950, or 2000, or now? I’m fairly certain that Columbus would not make it into our 2015 historiscope, at least not in his circa 1870 characterization.

Historiscope Cover Yale

Historiscope Native AMericans Getty

Historiscope Christopher Columbus

Box cover and scenes (Native Americans in full regalia before the arrival of Columbus and the man himself) from Milton Bradley’s Historiscope, c. 1870, Beinecke Library, Yale University and Getty Museum.

So I guess the theatre-guise of the Milton Bradley Historiscope is appropriate: it projects as well as reflects. Even modern historiscopes function this way, literally: my case in point is the Historoscope de Saint-Laurent project in Montreal, which utilizes architectural projection to tell the story of a neighborhood. I love it, and I think it’s probably the best we can do with this genre while we wait (forever) for the development of a real historiscope, a time-traveling telescope which can reveal the past rather than just scroll or screen it.

P.S. Another Milton Bradley Historiscope is available here, mounted on cute little legs!


3 responses to “The Historiscope

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