Interesting article on Jstor daily (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):
Cycloramas: The Virtual Reality of the 19th Century
Immersive displays brought 19th century spectators to far-off places and distant battles. The way they portrayed history, however, was often inaccurate.
In the fall of 1886, New Yorkers were transported to the Battle of Gettysburg. That is to say, they flocked to a circular structure in downtown Brooklyn. The inside walls of the curious room were covered with a 360-degree painting, on which soldiers charged and cannons fired. As Scientific American described at the time, the floorboards were covered with sod and “real trees, evergreens and others, with shrubbery, portions of fences, and the like are set about, and tufts of grass, wheat, and similar things, lend their aid to fill up the scene.” Skylights illuminated the canvas and props while leaving the spectator area dark, and mannequins were posed alongside the painted scene. So convincing were these dummies that the police got called one evening to stop a robbery and apprehended two fake soldiers.
This immersive installation, known as a cyclorama, was one of several that popped up around the United States and Europe in the nineteenth century. Civil War scenes were popular, but so were Niagara Falls, the Biblical Crucifixion, the Chicago Fire of 1871, and the Battle of Waterloo. They were the virtual reality of their time, combining art, lighting, architecture, and installations to convey viewers to exotic locales or the recent and distant past.
Irish painter Robert Barker is often credited with introducing what he described as a “picture without boundaries” in 1787, debuting his invention with a cylindrical panorama of Edinburgh. Cycloramas arrived in the United States by the end of the 1800s, and took off in the mid-nineteenth century. Because they required a specially-designed circular building, they tended to be long-term exhibitions. “Typically, a cyclorama stayed at one place until the local public lost interest in it and ticket sales dropped,” explains scholar Charles G. Markantes in Military Images. “Once the novelty wore off, some owners went bankrupt and were forced to abandon their paintings. Cycloramas remained viable attractions only where the location itself continued to attract visitors, such as the battlefield of Gettysburg or Atlanta.”