Apart from its intrinsic appeal and importance as a document speaking directly to the American whale fishery of the 1840s, Purrington and Russell’s “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” serves to contextualize New England’s maritime culture within the larger American experience of the day. Whaling was a specialized industry prosecuted by a number of active ports in New England and the Long Island. While America’s maritime trades were widespread and globally influential, whaling, while equally influential on a global scale, demanded skills, financing, hardware and other expertise far outside the normal activities of America’s trading ports. Obviously, Benjamin Russell (1804-1885), erstwhile New Bedford banker and leading citizen turned whaleman artist, sought to earn cash from his traveling panorama picture show of the New England whale fishery. Although it was a large and demanding, labor-intensive industry worth over $8 million dollars per year to the national economy, the significance of whaling was little known or appreciated outside of its immediate geographical management sectors.
Panoramas in general were very popular in the 1840s and 50s, and Russell and Purrington certainly went all-out to create a stunning documentation of the whaling experience for the intended audiences. The New York Morning Courier in July, 1851 noted: “Ever since the great success of BANVARD with his panorama of the Mississippi River, the public have been overrun with panoramas and dioramas of every conceivable river and land known to the civilized world—panoramas of the North Pole—panoramas of the South Pole—dioramas of the Creation—dioramas of the End of the World—panoramas of California, of Oregon, of Asia, Africa, Europe and every part of America have been painted or daubed and, like every dog, each one has had its day, blazed awhile in the streets and in the newspapers, and then are gone—nobody knows whither.”
The same editorial then went on to praise the high quality of Russell’s panorama: “of all the gems we have seen, RUSSELL’S great panorama of a Voyage Around the World is, on the whole, the best.” It then went on to describe the “magnificent” and “sublime” scenes, but significantly noted that Benjamin Russell himself was the “lucid” narrator of the show which he based on his own sketches and experiences as a whaleman.
Russell scheduled an ambitious line-up of venues. Cities like New York and Boston seem obvious choices. Other sites, however, such as Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky really do raise some significant questions as to the viability of the scheme as a money-making venture. While these were fairly large cities and towns for middle-America in the 1840s and 50s, the specific appeal of such an alien subject matter as pelagic whaling to the farming and urban-dwelling citizens of the hinterland was undoubtedly a gamble. However, New Bedford did have business interests in all of these cities and towns, so Benjamin may been counting on an interested populace. Oil refiner and candle manufacturer William Tallman Russell (1788-1872) of New Bedford, for instance, sold his products to retailers in Buffalo, St. Louis and Baltimore.
By 1850 Cincinnati had a population of 115, 000, St. Louis, 63,000, Buffalo, 40,000. New Bedford itself only numbered about 17,000 people. While, if the press accounts are any indication, the Panorama was wildly popular in New Bedford and elsewhere in New England, it’s popularity in the mid-west seems to have been moderate at best. In Buffalo in November, 1849, the press really did approve heartily of the show: “[it] is one of the most interesting and attractive exhibitions that has been witnessed in Buffalo. It presents views of some of the loveliest islands in the world, and shows how man plays with and conquers the leviathan of the deep. Come and see it. It will give you more real information than can be gleaned from books in months. The view of the beautiful city of New Bedford alone is worth the price of admission.”
Benjamin Russell however, complained of competition from other panoramas and attractions almost everywhere he went in the mid-west. Most of these cities and towns had large halls especially devoted to exhibiting panoramas. In Boston it was Amory Hall, in New York is was at Stoppani Hall, Broadway and in Buffalo is was Clinton Hall on the corner of Washington ands Clinton Streets.
Russell may have had an ulterior motive, such as labor recruitment by visiting these inland cities and towns. These places were potentially full of young men hungry for adventure. It may be a mere coincidence but in the same New York paper where a glowing advertisement for the Panorama appeared, the New York Morning Courier, October, 1851, a lengthy story appeared about the success of the American whaling industry with a paragraph specifically highlighting that the New Bedford fleet needing 4000 young men to man its ships.
Among the more fascinating questions about Russell traveling with this enormous painting and, presumably, the apparatus necessary to work it, is how did he get around? Between 1848 and 1851, railroads were rapidly connecting America’s mid-west cities and towns. Russell had even included a picture of the railroad in New Bedford at the extreme beginning of the Panorama.
Even at their best, however, these railroads were not quite up to scratch. John Avery Parker described his journey to Buffalo from Albany on the railroad as particularly arduous:
“Take it from Albany to Buffalo the road with some exception is more like riding in an old stage coach than on a railroad and the worst managed road that I ever rode over and the slowest road by about one half of any road in Massachusetts and about 75 percent higher fare 12 or 13 miles is all you go per hour. On our great Western Railroad from Boston to Greenbush they go over 20 miles per hour including stops. Very seldom more than 5 minutes is taken to land baggage and passengers, on your road from 10 minutes to 30 are generally taken up and no punctuality observed in starting. I will give you some facts which I was an eye witness to and could give you two hundred more witnesses for there were about that number altogether. We reached Utica from Troy in good time no complaint. Stopped all night at a good house first rate (Brag’s Hotel) next day two o clock was the starting hour our ladies got seated in the cars at ¼ before two at 3 oclk we started after backing & filling one whole hour. @ 3 oclk along we went for Auburn where we were told we should arrive by 8 oclk in the evening which was the hour we arrived at Syracuse which was the time my company wished to stop. Could not get our baggage because it was put in for Auburn in fact it was as much as a man’s life was worth to get in the neighborhood of our baggage so I took my seat in the cars thinking that the safest place. In the course of an hour we started and soon brought up and found they had wood & water to take in, after getting a supply as I supposed we backed up again as I judged nearly to Syracuse from thence we started ahead. Soon after the cars began to move at a slow pace all hands were called on to get out and push at the wheels to keep her moving. Finally got started and rode off 8 or 10 miles an hour, got on a few miles farther. We brought to a stand again and finally got to Auburn—12 oclock same night. Next morning we were told the cars left at 9 oclk we of course were to the depot in time. At about half past ten we started from Auburn and got on after that with the usual delays.” (MSS 14, John Avery Parker Papers, Letter book, October 9, 1847).
Russell must have encountered very similar challenges in his travels to those described by Parker, even more when one considers that there was no railroad to St. Louis from Louisville, Kentucky in 1850. Russell must have come to St. Louis via steamboat.
By the time that Russell had actually made into the American interior with his fascinating pictures of the adventures of world travel in the whale fishery, gold had been discovered in California. Men were leaving the old ports of the East Coast and traveling westward by whatever means they could.