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What IS a Moving Panorama?

June 8, 2012

by Leslie Rounds, Executive Director, Dyer Library and Saco Museum

A version of this article originally appeared in the Saco-Biddeford-Old Orchard Beach Courier on June 7, 2012

Image of a moving panorama from Scientific American, Vol. 4, Issue 13 (December 16, 1848), page 100

I’m glad you asked that question because the answer is so strange and remarkable that you really ought to know.  If you think about it, you may wonder what people of the mid-nineteenth century did for entertainment. Imagine: no television, no radio, no video games, and no movie theaters. Additionally, going out to eat was pretty much impossible since there just weren’t that many public places that served food and those that existed were primarily used by travelers.  So what did people do for fun, if anything?

Diaries of the 1850s show that people called on each other a lot, dropping in to share a cup of tea or a meal.  As for public entertainment, lectures seem to have been popular, but surely not light amusement. Perhaps, this entertainment void was one of the reasons that moving panoramas were an instant success when they were introduced.  Which, of course, brings us back to the question: What is a moving panorama?

Artists took enormously long sheets of lightweight fabric—hundreds of feet of it—and painted on it interesting scenes. Sometimes these took the form of a sort of travelogue—what you might see while floating down the Mississippi River for instance.  In the case of the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, well known artists of the time sketched and then painted scenes from a book that had been and was still enormously popular: The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was first published in 1678.  It was a tale most nineteeth-century people were familiar with, so the scenes would immediately resonate with viewers—like going to see “Hunger Games” after reading the book.

The fabric of the panorama, eight feet tall and over 800 feet long, would have been rolled up on a couple of giant bobbins.  People paid an admission fee and then sat in a gas-lit theater. A narrator began the tale of The Pilgrim’s Progress—Christian’s perilous  journey across a dangerous landscape in an effort to find salvation—as the first bobbin of the panorama was unwound across the stage before them, the flickering footlights providing an eerie illumination for the oft frightening, ever vivid scenes scrolling by. Crowds lined up in every city to view this dazzling spectacle.

Unfortunately, novelty inevitably wears off, and by the end of the Civil War the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress was no longer a marvel. Eventually, it was consigned to a Biddeford barn and then donated to the York Institute (now Saco Museum), where it was briefly exhibited and then rolled up in a corner and forgotten.

Now, thanks to the support (both material and moral) of many, the panorama is not only going to be exhibited—in its awesome full length–but, even more amazing, we citizens of the twenty-first century are going to have the opportunity to see a full-sized replica performed.  This is an experience NO ONE alive today—hey, no great-grandparents of anyone alive today—has enjoyed.  We hope that you will take advantage of the opportunity to view one of America’s great artistic and entertainment treasures, right here in the twin cities of Saco and Biddeford, and to experience the remarkable live performance of this massive, wonderful piece of art.  Please click here for complete details about the premiere performance on June 23, and to stay in touch with all things panorama, visit and bookmark the panorama’s new, dedicated webpage:

One Comment leave one →
  1. Tom Allison permalink
    June 18, 2012 2:44 pm

    Many thanks to everyone who made this exhibit and the modern reproduction possible! All too often our history is bulldozed down, paved over or in this case consigned to a barn and forgotten. In the 1850’s this was cutting edge I’m pleased that it will be available for the public to enjoy for decades to come. I’m looking forward to experiencing it for myself soon

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