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Milton Bradley’s Myriopticon, a parlor game containing images from the history of the “Rebellion” or the American Civil War, came with directions, lecture, a poster and tickets. View Game »

The Toys of War

By Sarah Burns and Daniel Greene

New York Times  February 27, 2014

Just in time for Christmas 1866, a 30-year-old game creator named Milton Bradley ran an advertisement in Colman’s Rural World, a St. Louis-based publication for farmers. Bradley, a lithographer living in Springfield, Mass., was already well known for inventing “The Checkered Game of Life” in 1860. His 1866 ad promoted his games and amusements as “moral, entertaining, wonderful, and instructive.” Among these wonders was the Myriopticon, a toy panorama containing 22 scenes from the history of the “Rebellion” so recently concluded. The toy evidently caught on, at least for a time. The next year, another Bradley puff described the Myriopticon as “immensely popular with boys,” especially those ages 7 to 12.

Given the subject – the bloody conflict that ended three-quarters of a million lives – the Myriopticon might seem an unusual choice for Christmas cheer. But Milton Bradley’s picture story wrapped the grisly conflict in bright theatrical trappings fit for even the most refined middle-class parlor. In that colorful box were the tools and the script for a splendid game. It made the war dramatic, entertaining, and – above all – fun.

Made of cardboard, the elaborately decorated box – roughly a foot square – mimicked a proscenium stage, with heavy, draped curtains and patriotic bunting as well as a medieval king and queen, a harpist and a tambourine player on the sidelines. On stage, the hand-colored pictures glided past on a long scroll affixed to wooden dowels on either end that could be wound up with a crank or handle.

The complete kit included a broadside announcing the “Grand Artistic and Historical Exhibition,” of the “Great Rebellion,” a sheet of pretend tickets, and a script for the lucky little showman to follow as the pictures rolled by.

The instructions recommended that the “exhibition” take place in a darkened room, with parlor curtains drawn around the box and a candle light behind it to mimic the ambience of a real theater. The broadside played up the performance, too, “respectfully” requesting the audience to remain seated till the first scene rolled by.

The opening scene in the miniature epic represents Maj. Robert Anderson and his men entering Fort Sumter on Dec. 26, 1860, preparing to defend it against Confederate assault. The pictures move from combat to comic camp scenes, signal towers and mortars, and rebel prisoners under guard. (Bradley supposedly copied the lot from Harper’s Weekly, though no one has yet done a systematic analysis.)

Among the crude but lively renditions, Winslow Homer’s “Sharpshooter” (which ran in Harper’s as “The Army of the Potomac” on Nov. 15, 1862) stands out, the original black and white enhanced by hand coloring in red and blue. Next is the Battle of Fredericksburg, which in turn shifts to a quieter scene (verifiably from a Harper’s issue of Jan. 31, 1863) of contrabands just arriving at a Union camp.

The script is as lively as the drawings, mixing a sprightly tone, fast pace and broad humor appropriate for a target audience of prepubescent boys. A depiction of Union foragers attempting to capture some rambunctious hogs is labeled a “very pig-chew-resque scene,” and the script styles Homer’s dead-serious sharpshooter as the putative relative of a celebrated poet, because he is evidently a “very long fellow.” In other sections, the “you are there” address lends immediacy, as when viewers are warned to “proceed very carefully” in approaching a party of soldiers around a campfire.

The Myriopticon was a juvenile variant on other educational amusements made for the middle-class Northern parlor. Adults and children alike peered into stereoscopes for stunningly illusionistic three-dimensional views of Civil War camps, weapons and even dead bodies strewn on battlefields. They also could play and sing war songs around the piano. Soon after the end of hostilities, they could (if affluent) page through Alexander Gardner’s hefty two-volume “Photographic Sketchbook of the War,” which, like the Myriopticon, presented a tightly scripted history scattered with surprising elisions, notably the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (Gardener’s “Photographic Sketchbook,” like Bradley’s Myriopticon, dates from 1866.) The last scene in the “Photographic Sketchbook” shows the dedication of the monument at Bull Run; the last in the Myriopticon is the burning and evacuation of Richmond on the night of April 2, 1865.

Of course, no one would ever accuse Gardner or Bradley of engineering a cover-up by failing to include the assassination or glossing over the achievements of black soldiers in the Union Army. But such omissions clue us in to their shared agenda. Both Gardner and Bradley structured and shaped not just the story but also the memory of the war, all scaled down to manageable size, packaged and marketed for home entertainment and instruction. Book and toy alike stand witness to the ways in which the far-off conflict infiltrated and changed daily life, even after the war had ended. A miniature theater of war designed to play and replay the war over and over again, the Myriopticon enshrined and preserved its remembrance. As the instructions put it: “It is much better to have the lecture committed to memory than to read it, as then the facts are impressed upon the memory, and any other remarks can be mixed in, or the description varied to any extent, as long as the facts and dates are retained.”

But they were very particular facts. The Myriopticon told a thrilling saga of bravery, heroic sacrifice, Yankee ingenuity and inevitable triumph, with a few chuckles along the way. It recounted the war as an almost exclusively masculine field of action. And it was very modern in the way it mediated, commercialized and mass-produced the history and memory of the war for fun and profit.

Perhaps the Myriopticon’s most modern quality is its proto-cinematic flow. Close-ups give way to distant views in seamless montage. There are lots of guns and explosions, and, just before the grand finale, the uplifting moment when “colored troops” enter Charleston, S.C., where it all began four years earlier. The final apocalyptic scene is a wide-angle view that shows the silhouettes of defeated troops fleeing Richmond as the city burns behind them. Put it in motion, and this scene could be the burning of Atlanta in the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind.”

The Myriopticon still fascinates us today because it is almost a movie. In 1866, Bradley also advertised his model of the Zoetrope, a hollow drum which, when rapidly spun, gives the illusion of motion to pictures on the inner surface. It would be decades before storytelling technology finally caught up to create the motion picture as we know it. But the engagingly interactive Myriopticon deserves a place in the genealogy of the modern war movie, which, like its distant ancestor, brings the war home with gripping narrative, vivid imagery, and rousing action.

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Sarah Burns is a professor emeritus of art history at Indiana University. Daniel Greene is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University. They are co-contributors to “Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North,” a book that accompanies an exhibition in collaboration with the Terra Foundation for American Art, on view at the Newberry Library through March 24, 2014.

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