An inaugural inductee into the American National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998, the View-Master has proven to be a popular toy with each successive generation of children and young teenagers. Introduced to the world at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the View-Master was a small handheld viewer, through which stereoscopic 3-D photographs could be seen, via thin cardboard discs (known as ‘reels’) containing seven pairs of small colour photographs, which is inserted into the viewer and rotated via a small lever at the side.
The View-Master had its beginnings within the walls of the Oregon-based Sawyer’s Services, Inc. (later shortened to just Sawyer’s), one of America’s largest producers of scenic postcards during the 1920’s. When avid photographer William Gruber hooked-up with Sawyer’s in 1938, he presented them with a special rig he had built in order to view stereoscopic (3-D) images from frames of the then-new Kodachrome 16mm colour film. After refining the viewer and dubbing it the View-Master (a name Gruber hated, thinking it sounded too much like a kitchen appliance), the initial viewers were made from Bakelite and sold at photography stores and scenic attraction gift shops. Subjects for the early reels included scenic attractions like the Carlsbard Caverns in New Mexico and the Grand Canyon.
The novelty of the View-Master quickly saw its popularity, as well as the profits of Sawyer’s, skyrocket. During the Second World War, the American military used View-Masters as a valuable tool for training their personnel in depth perception, purchasing over 100,000 viewers and nearly six million reels between 1942 and 1945. When Sawyer’s absorbed True-Vue, View-Master’s main rival, in 1951, it not only took care of the competition, but enabled Sawyer to take advantage of True-Vue’s lucrative licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Studios, producing popular reels of Disney characters, as well as reels depicting the various rides and attractions at Disneyland after the theme park opened in 1955.
In 1966, Sawyer’s was taken over by General Aniline & Film (GAF) and the View-Master, now more streamlined and manufactured in plastic rather than Bakelite, became a much more youth-oriented product. While scenic and travelogue reels were still being produced, the focus began to shift more towards movies, television shows, cartoons and occasionally music groups. Many of these post-GAF reels are amongst the most popular and sought after with collectors – some of the View-Master TV show sets produced during this period include Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, The Brady Bunch, Hawaii Five-O, Laugh-In, Batman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E and many more.
1970 saw the introduction of the Talking View-Master, a larger and heavier model which played special reels that had a clear plastic sound disc attached to them. While they were more expensive and had electronics in them that tended to break down after time, and the sound was often tinny and hard to understand, the Talking View-Master was a popular addition to the line, and remained in production in various incarnations until 1997. Another variation was the lighted View-Master, introduced in 1958, which used batteries and a built-in light globe to illuminate the reels, rather than have to hold the viewer up to a window or other external light source.
While the majority of View-Master reels were manufactured in America and Belgium, a number were also produced in countries like France, Austria, India and Australia (there were several Australia specific sets produced in 1973, covering cities like Alice Springs, Cairns, Adelaide and Melbourne).
In terms of collectability, most View-Master viewers and reels can be found quite easily and inexpensively, such was the huge numbers they were produced in. There are certainly exceptions, though. Early viewers and reels will always command good prices if they are in great condition, and of course some of the reels for popular or cult movies and television shows remain desirable as they appeal to a cross-section of collectors. Again, condition is always a main factor in the value of the reels, since they were made of rather thin cardboard and could be damaged or bent easily, and the film frames were susceptible to scratching. The paper envelope packaging for the reels was also rather thin and easy to tear, and the rear flaps often detached. Most reels also came with an illustrated booklet that will often be missing or damaged. Naturally, packets that are unopened and still in their cellophane wrapping are the most sought-after. Also popular with collectors are the special gift sets that are occasionally produced to tie-in with general themes (like superheroes, monsters and Disney) and specific movies/topics (such as the E.T., Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Hello Kitty and The Little Mermaid).
Advertising and other promotional material can also appeal to the hardcore collector. This includes store display signs, wholesale catalogues, demonstration reels given out to retailers, and even incentive items, like the pair of gold-plated View-Master cufflinks that were given out to company employees who had achieved or exceeded their sales targets. Another very desirable item is the thin plastic folding View-Master, which was produced to fit inside medical text books in the early-1970s, and came with a number of specially made medical reels, which helped students visualise diseases and parts of the human anatomy with a depth not achievable on the printed page (many of these images required a rather strong stomach to look at).
After 25 different models of viewer, thousands of titles and nearly 1.5 billion reels produced over the decades, and even a feature film reportedly being developed by DreamWorks (!), it’s safe to say the View-Master will be around and entertaining kids – and adult collectors – for many years to come.
Copyright John Harrison 2018
(Note: The above piece was originally written for Collectables Trader, an Australian magazine which I regularly contributed to. Unfortunately, the magazine ceased publishing before this final piece could be run).