John Wesley Jones’s Pantoscope of California, Nebraska, Utah, and the Mormons (1852)

By May 30, 2013


Jones’s Great Pantoscope of California. Broadside, ca. 1852 from Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (Yale UP, 2002), 50.

Another post in the Mormonism’s Many Images series.

In late 1852 and 1853, a new and dazzling show debuted on the stages of Boston and New York. Playing to eager audiences, including the ?elite and intellectual,? John Wesley Jones?s Pantoscope of California. Nebraska, Utah, and the Mormons became something of a sensation, running briskly for more than a year and garnering almost uniform praise from critics. It was, an advertisement boasted, the ?LARGEST PAINTING IN THE WORLD,? produced at the astronomical cost of $40,000. Audiences were thrilled by its stunning reproductive detail of the landscape; indeed, Jones claimed that his work was empirical, it was based on 1,500 newfangled daguerreotype images of the American West he and a crew had taken exclusively for that purpose. [1]

Jones?s Pantoscope belonged to the passing nineteenth-century genre of the ?panorama,? and to an age of experimentation with audiovisual entertainment. The absorbing experiences of radio and film were still decades away and popular entertainment remained confined to the stage theater. Panoramas took a variety of forms, but they often constituted ?moving pictures? in the most literal sense. Enormous canvas paintings produced by teams of artists?some reportedly miles long and covering hundreds of thousands of square feet?were rolled across the stage, moving across the audience?s line of sight from one giant spool to another. Accompanied by music and narration, these exhibitions simulated the experience of travel: they were ?designed to convey a sense of movement across space and time? in a uncommonly realistic visual world. For contemporary audiences, this was a new and delightful vicarious experience. Like the telegraph and the steamboat, the panorama was, some proclaimed, a ?wonderful invention for annihilating time and space.? [2]

The Pantoscope followed the lead of other panoramas in Britain and the United States. A half decade earlier, John Banvard had made a similar exhibition of his Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers (1846), which assumed the vantage point of a traveler on a riverine journey, absorbing the scale and splendor of the Mississippi Valley. But in keeping with the turn of national fascination to the far West and the increasing clarity of the country?s ?manifest destiny,? John Wesley Jones turned his attention there. In a society still essentially dependent on artists? renderings, and yet eager for visual insight to this remote and inaccessible region, Jones?s presentation carried observers along the overland trail and across the plains, through mountain canyons and passes, and into the warm abundance of California, offering both vivid images and a spatial-conceptual framework in which to ground them. The show promised to help Easterners grasp the West as part of one gigantic, sweeping whole.

At the very center of the Pantoscope, painted into this simulacrum of the West were the Mormons, by now an unmistakable fixture in the mythology and on the landscape. As an exceptional point of human interest in a largely natural drama, Mormons and the Great Salt Lake City attracted a great deal of attention after settlement in 1847 and represented a subject of substantial interest in popular writing. Western travel writers like John C. Fremont seldom failed to address the Mormons in their published accounts and sometimes supplemented the narrative with engravings or other illustrations. The remoteness of Mormon society (unchanged as yet by the railroad) and the exotic elements of its social order made it an intriguing subject. Jones?s Pantoscope went beyond the capacities of diarists and ethnographers, however, transporting the audience to the very scene, and letting them actually see the Mormons and their territory in continuity with its Western surroundings.

SLC Scene from Jones, Lecture Notes for Pantoscope (1852)

Winter Scene in Salt Lake City, 1851, from ?Jones’ Pantoscope of California: A ?Lecture? by J. Wesley Jones, together with Pencil Sketches Depicting the Journey across the Plains to California,? California Historical Quarterly 6, no. 2 (Jun. 1927): 109.

More could be said about the representations of Mormonism in Jones?s Pantoscope and in other cultural representations of the time. Although the giant Pantoscope painting itself is long gone, Jones? lecture notes and some pencil sketches from the show survive, as does a published ?poetical companion? written by hack poet John Ross Dix. [2] Both foreground the popular fascinations of the time?scenes and innuendo of polygamy, scandalous intermixture of Church and State, the social psychology of Mormon people. While the visual representations of the Pantoscope appear lost (none of the daguerreotypes survive either), the remaining literary narrative of Mormonism presented to Eastern audiences seems consistent with other contemporary discourse.

In particular, however, Martha Sandweiss, in her history of photography and the American West, raises an interesting line of thought. One of the central and recurring arguments of Sandweiss?s book is that in all of its early forms, photography struggled to gain a foothold in competition against the more animated, more romanticized images produced by lithographers, engravers, and others during in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, long after the development of daguerreotypes and other photographic technology, American consumers preferred evocative artistic renderings to what seemed in contrast to be sterile and dead photographic images in which ?the spirit is wanting.? [4] Part of this had to do with the difficulty of duplicating and displaying photographic images. However, Sandweiss also contends that Americans initially rejected photography because it did not comport with popular, mythologized imaginings of the West. These ideological preferences, she argues, affected the development of photography as a cultural medium.

If correct, Sandweiss?s argument, it seems to me, raises related and interesting questions for historians of the Mormon image. What effect did this engrained mythology of the West have had upon representations of Mormonism in the middle of the nineteenth century? Were depictions of Mormons dramatized for the same reasons that artists dramatized images of the Western landscape? How can we better understand the way that Mormonism was conceived in this period by probing the concept of the West in the American imagination?



[1] For an account of Jones? Pantoscope and an overview of panoramas and other contemporary forms of visual art and entertainment, see Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

[2] See Sandweiss, Print the Legend, 53.

[3] [John Wesley Jones], ?Jones’ Pantoscope of California: A ?Lecture? by J. Wesley Jones, together with Pencil Sketches Depicting the Journey across the Plains to California,? California Historical Quarterly 6, no. 2 (Jun. 1927): 109-129; John Ross Dix, A Poetical Companion to the Pantoscope of California? (Boston, 1854).

[4] Sandweiss, Print the Legend, 30.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great post, Ryan. Thank you!

    In my own work with the Mormon image after 1890, I’ve often been struck by how staged the photographs used by newspapers are and how clearly they reinforce standard narratives, both negative — a polygamist and his family, published when the papers were trying to undermine a Mormon colonist’s negative take on American military actions in the Mexican Revolution, for example — AND more positive. My favorite example of the latter is a photo of Heber J. Grant in Zion in the 1920s (I think), run as part of a photo essay at the time of the National Park’s opening. HJG is standing on a rock in a sort of stereotypical explorer’s pose with a pleasant expression on his face, dressed in a suit and displaying a neatly trimmed beard. Building on your thoughts here, we could interpret such images as evidence that, after World War I, the Mormons were a much less threatening part of the increasingly domesticated Western landscape.

    Comment by Cristine — May 30, 2013 @ 11:47 am

  2. This is about an area of media that I am wholly unfamiliar. Really interesting. Also, I had to look pantoscope up. I like learning new words.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 30, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

  3. Ryan, Is it safe to assume that C. C. A. Christensen’s traveling roadshow/lecture featuring his large canvas paintings of events from LDS history falls into this same general category?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 30, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

  4. You’re welcome, Cristine. Some interesting points. Sandweiss’s book has some interesting bits about the challenge faced by early photographers struggling to learn how to introduce narrative elements into their images–she argues that there was a crucial shift when the development of technology allowed for paper prints and for words to be superimposed or appended to the images.

    Agreed, J. The age of “panoramania” in Europe and the US during the 19th C was something I stumbled over recently and had never encountered before. I’m actually surprised you found “pantoscope” in the dictionary…

    And Gary, from what I know of Christensen, this is very much in the same vein, although most of the panoramas I’m aware of were landscapes, rather than historical and done on a very large scale by many painters.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 30, 2013 @ 8:08 pm

  5. That said, Gary, there was also a contemporary form of public art called a “transparency,” in which an artist painted a historical, commemorative scene on a thin parchment and used lamps or candles to provide back lighting so the painting would be illuminated. These, too, could be very large. They were often used in communities to commemorate holidays like the Fourth of July.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 30, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

  6. Very cool.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 30, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

  7. Nice work, Ryan. Thanks!

    Comment by Christopher — June 3, 2013 @ 9:38 am


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