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This article was originally published on my antiques & collectibles web site www.santafetradingpost.com 

The View-Master Story

Glory Years - Sawyer’s – 1938-1966

Harold Graves and William GruberIntroduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, View-Master was the brainchild of William R. Gruber, an organ maker, inventor, and enthusiastic photographer, and Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s, Inc., a company specializing in picture postcards. When Gruber invented a new camera that took stereo photographs with the new Kodachrome color film that had just hit the market, the two men’s chance meeting started a revolution! Gruber envisioned a reel containing seven pairs of 3D Kodachrome images and Graves immediately saw the potential for such a reel to replace picture postcards. So the two men formed a partnership in 1938 to produce and market what became the View-Master system: a hand-held stereo viewer and an ever-growing library of hundreds, soon thousands, of reels covering numerous topics.

Model A viewerThe original View-Master viewer, the Model A, was produced from 1938 to 1944. It was round, had large eyepieces like a pair of binoculars, and hinges at the bottom to open up for reel insertion. The reel was moved from scene to scene by means of the “stop” lever at the top. This viewer was constructed of a special type of heavy plastic and came in solid black, black with blue and white speckles, and black with green and tan speckles.

For the first couple of years the reels were dark blue, had no notch at the top, and had a gold foil label in the center that was hand-lettered in black. All lettering was semicircular, both the reel ID information above and below the center hole and the scene descriptions at the perimeter of the label just below the film. Reels were sold singly in a little “carton” printed in metallic gold and either black or deep blue ink, with a circular window on the front so you could see the label of the reel inside. This carton was later replaced by the classic View-Master reel sleeve, the first of which were also printed in metallic gold and deep blue ink.

View-Master blue reelBy 1940, however, the reels had completely changed in appearance: dark beige with a single notch at the top and a dark blue ink “ring” printed around the film strip. The black hand lettering, while still semicircular, was done directly on the reel, not a label. Sleeve appearance also changed and sleeves were printed in only deep blue ink, no gold.

1941-1944 appears to have been a transition period for reel design. Now they were completely dark beige, at least on their fronts, still with the single notch at the top, but with no dark blue ring around the filmstrip. During this period some of the dark beige reels had dark blue backs, some had white backs, and some were dark beige both front and back. In addition, some reels were white front and back. The style of the hand-lettered reel ID information in the center of the reels also changed from semicircular to straight across, although the scene descriptions below the film remained semicircular.

beige reel 1 notch

Beige reel - 1 notch

 

handlettered reel completely semicircular

Hand-lettered reel -
completely semicircular
 

handlettered reel semicircular scene descriptions

Hand-lettered reel
semicircular scene descriptions


The Model B viewer, produced from 1944 to 1948, was similar in appearance to the Model A, still opened up from the bottom like a clam shell to accept the reel, but made of Bakelite, a more durable plastic material. It came in four color variations: solid black, half blue and half black with black eyepieces, brown with black eyepieces, and blue with black eyepieces.

Between 1944 and 1946, reel appearance changed once again. Now the reels were white with two notches at the top and virtually all the typeset reel with positioning numbershand-lettered reel ID information was straight across. The final reel change occurred in 1946, producing the reel color and design that has been used ever since: white reel front and back, two notches at the top, and no more hand lettering. Now everything was typeset and the scene descriptions, as well as the reel ID information, were all straight across. Only one slight addition subsequently occurred. By 1950, all reels included a positioning number above each scene description.

Model C viewerYou’ll no doubt immediately recognize the Model C viewer, produced from 1946 to 1955, because this is the beloved View-Master that we all grew up with – at least all of us who were kids in the 50’s. Remember how you’d hold the reel with the notches pointing up and carefully insert it into the top of the viewer, waiting to hear that click that told you it was properly positioned? And then the magic would start! There, right in front of your eyes, was a gorgeous full-color 3D picture – with six more to follow, easily advanced by means of the little metal lever on the side of the viewer! Who cared if most reels were intended for adults, not kids? Certainly not us kids! Once we got the viewer wrested away from our parents (or at least got them in family sharing time mode), all these wonders were for our enjoyment, too. And enjoy we did!

I attribute my abiding love of travel, not to mention the natural wonders of America, directly to the hours and hours I spent as a child looking at those amazing View-Master reels. I mean, this was the 50’s, folks. Sure, we finally got a TV, but assuming we actually saw a program about the Grand Canyon, it certainly wasn’t in color or 3D. For that we relied on View-Master. And even with our favorite TV heroes, if we wanted to see Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers in 3D color, it was back to the View-Master. And my little brothers particularly enjoyed all the Fairy Tale reels. Our reel collection grew by leaps and bounds because not only did our parents keep buying reels for themselves – yeah, sure! – we kids could always count on getting a reel or two as a Christmas present, birthday present, or just one of those “Oh boy, look what I just found at the local dime store!” eureka moments.

Until recently, I had always assumed that all View-Master viewers were solid black like ours and was surprised to learn that the Model C also came in dark brown, light brown, 2-tone brown, and black with brown speckles. See? You can still learn a thing or two about View-Master. And here’s something else I’ll bet you didn’t know about the Model C: Box - Stereo Setbeginning in 1950, Sawyer’s produced a light attachment for it. The light attachment was sold separately in its own box, but the two pieces were also sold together as a boxed “Stereo Set” whose interior had two compartments: a large one for the viewer and light attachment and a smaller one for the included reels.

Personal Stereo cameraPersonal reelIn 1952 Sawyer’s introduced the View-Master Personal Stereo Camera as part of a complete system that allowed amateur photographers to make their own personal View-Master reels. The camera used 35mm film to produce 69 stereo pairs from a 36-exposure roll of film. Sawyer’s offered a mail order mounting service and although many local dealers offered similar services, all personal films had to be sent to Sawyer’s for cutting and mounting onto reels via a special machine – the only one in the country – unless users chose to cut and mount their own images on reel blanks.

Tereomatic 500 projectorEvidently this niche market for personal reel production was too small to be profitable and Sawyer’s ended production of its camera in 1955. But while the market may have been small, its members were – and are – true believers and personal reels were still being made as late as the early 90’s. By then, however, the one and only reel mounting machine was finally wearing out and Fisher-Price, the current owner of View-Master, chose not to fix it. In fact, when Fisher-Price shut down the old Portland, OR View-Master plant in 2000 and moved production to Mexico, they decided not to include the reel machine in the move. It instead went to Fisher-Price headquarters in New York City for storage and has been sitting there ever since, despite a mini brouhaha over its demise.

In 1955 View-Master introduced the Model D viewer  that included an internal battery-operated light source. This viewer was produced only in the U.S. from 1955 to 1974 and came in either black or brown. Model D viewerThe Model E, with a separate light attachment, appeared in 1956 and was produced until 1960. Still made of Bakelite, the design was different, with the top being v-shaped rather than flat. In addition, the advance knob was no longer metal, but ivory, either flat or rippled. The Model E still came in the basic black or brown colors in the U.S., but in Belgium, this model was also produced in red, gray, cream, and maroon for the European market. The Model F viewer (1958-1966) featured a push-down top bar that activated the built-in light source.

The Model G (1959-1977) marked the end of Bakelite viewers when Sawyer’s, under the leadership of its new president Bob Brost, switched to a much lighter weight thermoplastic in 1962. This model came in a variety of colors – off-white, beige, red, white, and red and white. The Model H lighted viewer (1961-1981) was the last one produced by Sawyer’s and came in either beige or blue.

Snow White story bookView-Master reels originally were sold individually in their distinctive blue and white sleeves, with some reels accompanied by a story folder. Sawyer’s 1947 catalog1947 catalog lists hundreds of scenic reels – U.S., Hawaiian Islands, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Central America, West Indies, South America, England, Switzerland – as well as many Bible Story reels, Fairy Tale reels, Cactus reels, Wildflower reels, and the first three Stereoscopically Illustrated Books, educational sets devoted to a particular topic that consisted of numerous reels and an illustrated book. In addition to these reels sold to the public, Sawyer’s also produced special training reels for the U.S. military and various industries, as well as promotional reels for a variety of businesses.

Demonstration reelAnd Sawyer’s wasn’t above self-promotion, producing a number of Demonstration Reels (DR reels), usually printed in red ink and often included as a freebie with viewers. They even produced their own Sam Sawyer series: six reels, complete with story folders, depicting the adventures of cartoon character Sam Sawyer flying to the moon, finding a treasure, visiting the Land of Giants, etc. These and other special reels are considered to be collector reels and are eagerly sought out by today’s collectors.

Disneyland reel packetIn 1951 Sawyer’s bought out their rival, the Tru-Vue company, including Tru-Vue’s license with Walt Disney Studios. Now View-Master could produce reels featuring virtually all the Disney characters, as well as the incredible new Disneyland theme park being built in Anaheim, CA. What an exciting time for all of us wannabe Mouseketeers who eagerly plunked ourselves in front of the TV set every weekday afternoon to see The Mickey Mouse Club and watch Disneyland taking shape!

By 1950 Sawyer’s had a sufficiently large catalog of reels to begin grouping similar reels together and selling them in packets of three inside full-color packet envelopes. The first 3-reel packets contained what had been three individual reels, but as this inventory became depleted and the 3-reel packets increased in popularity, Sawyer’s began producing reels specifically for the packets, often re-numbering the reels in the process.

Take The Christmas Story, for example. The three original reels were numbered XM-1, XM-2, and XM-3 respectively. The Christmas Story became Sawyer’s very first 3-reel packet, and the reels in early packets were still numbered XM-1, XM-2, and XM-3. However, eventually Sawyer’s started producing Christmas Story reels for its real 3-reel Christmas Story packet. That packet was numbered B383 and the new reels, although containing the exact same scenes as the XM reels, were numbered B3831, B3832, and B3833.

1955 reel listSawyer’s 1955 reel list includes both the single reels and the 3-reel packets available at the time. By then there were eight different View-Master reel series – Stories and Adventure, Nature, Sports, Religious, Famous People, Foreign Travelogues, World Events and Festivals, and Vacation Land – with most series containing numerous sub-categories.

Packet styles evolved over the years, with at least five different styles:

 

packet style 1948-54 packet style 1955-57 packet style 1958-60

Packet style 1948-1954

Packet style 1955-1957

Packet style 1958-1960

packet style 1960-63

Packet style 1960-1963

packet style 1963-66

Packet style 1963-1966

Out of Print reelAnd here’s an absolutely fascinating piece of View-Master trivia. Have you ever seen a View-Master reel that says “Out of Print” around its perimeter? What’s that all about? Well, it all has to do with those 3-reel sets. Each of the three reels in a set was produced on a separate machine and, as you might expect, each machine’s run produced a slightly different number of reels. Eek! What to do with the excess reels? The obvious choice was either save them to include in the next run of that particular set or just pitch them if and when storage space became scarce.

But wait – what about a brilliant third option? How about stamping (or reprinting) the excess reels “Out of Print” and selling them to dealers at a discount? Hope the employee who came up with that little gem got a huge bonus! The idea worked like gangbusters and “Out of Print” reels continued to be sold well into the GAF period of the mid-1970's. Not surprisingly, “Out of Print” View-Master reels are highly sought after today for several reasons. They’re a darn good way for a collector to replace a missing or damaged reel from a 3-reel set or acquire a rare reel whose set was only produced in limited quantities. Really diligent – and patient – collectors can build their own rare 3-reel sets one “Out of Print” reel at a time!

Transition - GAF – 1966-1981

In 1966 Sawyer’s was acquired by GAF, the General Aniline & Film Corporation. The View-Master name was retained, but GAF immediately started selling View-Master reels in new GAF packets. GAF also switched the emphasis of View-Mater reel production from Sawyer’s original lines of travel and Lassie GAF reel packetscenic reels to new lines of reels featuring movie, TV, sports, and cartoon themes, plus an ever-growing number of child-specific topics. Numerous then-popular and now-classic TV series such as Star Trek, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Lassie (with Timmy, not Jeff), Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and The Beverly Hillbillies all became View-Master reels. Likewise such movie blockbusters as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Poseidon Adventure, and Jurassic Park.

Several additional viewer models were produced during the GAF years:

  • the Model J (1974-1996) that was produced only in Belgium and came in even more colors: red, medium blue, yellow, green, beige, black, and dark blue.
  • Model K viewer 1975-84the Model K (1975-1984) that looked very futuristic, was dubbed the “Space Viewer,” and came in red, orange, black, and gold. (A special silver version of the Model K, called the Model K EPCOT, was produced and sold only in 1983 during the opening of EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL.)
  • The Model L (1977-present), most of which were and still are red with either a flat orange lever or a large orange knob, although this viewer was also produced in black with a flat orange lever, black with a flat black lever, purple with a flat orange lever, blue, black, and a bunch of special colors for gift sets, including a pink Barbie set and a metallic red View-Master 65th Anniversary set.

GAF Belgium reel packetSpeaking of Belgium, Sawyer’s had opened a Belgium manufacturing plant in 1953. After GAF acquired View-Master, the Belgium operation produced not only the Model J viewer, but also GAF Packet-Books that were distributed in Europe and Canada. The Packet-Books were printed on sturdy coated paper with a cardstock sleeve inside the back cover that held the three reels. These books carried the GAF logo on the front and a packet number on the back that usually started with a B, indicating that they were produced in Belgium, and ended with a letter indicating what language the book was written in, such as F for French.

red viewer 1976Talking View-MasterGAF released a special red and white viewer with bright blue handle in 1976 to commemorate America’s Bicentennial and introduced the Talking View-Master in 1971. This model was sold by itself or in a gift pack canister that included reels. It was especially popular with “teeny-boppers” of the time because with it they could not only see their favorite rock groups (think The Monkees, The Partridge Family) in full-color 3D, they could also hear them via a tiny plastic record. One can only speculate about the sound quality as compared to the film quality.

Speaking of film quality, GAF’s subsequent film “innovation” turned out to be a disaster. In 1977 GAF decided to switch to its own brand of film for View-Master images. Bad decision. The GAF film was of such poor quality that the images turned red over time. We own a few of these reels and can personally verify that the images have a pronounced red cast to them. GAF only produced reels photographed with their own film from 1977 to 1981, the year GAF sold View-Master to the Arnold Thayer Group. But believe it or not, collectors actually seek out these esthetically-challenged reels to add to their collections, not only because so few of them were produced, but also because they’re a vintage example of “corporate madness,” a phenomenon with which the world has become all too familiar in the intervening years!

GAF Grand Canyon reel sleeveblister packGAF is also responsible for the demise of both the View-Master single reel sleeve and the 3-reel packet, as well as the story folders that had accompanied so many of the earlier reels. Bowing to pressure from retailers for a hanging display format, GAF introduced a new Blisterpack in 1980. This was a long rectangular piece of cardboard with a cut-out notch near the top for hanging on one of those ubiquitous hooks so popular with retailers. The top portion of the card was printed with one or more graphics showing the reel contents and the bottom portion had a clear plastic compartment to hold the reel(s). Most Blisterpacks contained 3-reel sets, although some had four reels, some two, and even a few single reels were sold in Blisterpacks.

But while this marketing format pleased the retailers, it presented a major problem for consumers. Once you finally managed to extract the reels from their pack – and we all know what a truly miserable process that can be – there you were with an ever-growing collection of “naked” reels and no way to protect the film. But hey, by 1980 we had pretty much become a throw-away culture. Few if any products were supposed (or expected) to “last forever,” and if a little piece of film came loose or was otherwise damaged, you just tossed that reel in the trash and bought another one, right? Ah, the joys of “progress.”

Toyland - Sales and Mergers – 1981-present

In 1981 GAF sold View-Master to a group led by Arnold Thayer, head of Ekco Housewares, and the company was renamed VMI (View-Master International). VMI bought the Ideal Toy Company three years later and the View-Master company name changed once again to View-Master Ideal Group. Model M push-button viewerThey introduced the Model M push-button viewer in 1986, but this model only lasted until 1990 due to a poor design that made it noisy and difficult to operate since its touted push button wasn’t nearly as quick and easy as the previous advance levers had been. The Model M came in either rose or blue with a bright yellow push button and a transparent back, its purpose being to let children watch the reel as it rotated. But wait a minute! How’s a kid supposed to see the reel moving via the viewer’s transparent back when his/her eyes are glued to the front eyepieces watching the show? Was this envisioned as a group experience thing with something for the non-viewing kids to do while not so patiently waiting their turn?

Mickey Mouse viewer 1989-96Big Bird viewer 1989-95In 1989 the company was sold to Tyco Toys, who produced viewers from 1989-1997 when Mattel, Tyco, and View-Master Ideal Group all merged. Tyco produced several viewers in the shape of special characters such as Mickey Mouse (1989-1996), Big Bird (1989-1995), Casper (1993-1994), Batman (1995), sold in “Batman Forever” gift sets that included 3 reels from the 1995 movie of the same name, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1995-1996), and Tweety Bird (also 1995-1996), that was not sold in retail stores, but only at the 6 Six Flags amusement parks throughout the U.S.

Model N viewer 1992-98In addition, Tyco also produced the Model N (1992-1998), a viewer that looks something like the top half of Darth Vader’s helmet, although in a much more child- friendly bright orange color with large yellow knob.

View-Master has been part of Mattel’s pre-school division since the 1997 merger, with two additional View-Master viewers introduced that are still in production today:

  • the Virtual Viewer, introduced in 1999, that comes in many colors, four of which are transparent, and is today sold only in gift sets with reels.
  • Model O viewer 2002the Model O, introduced in 2002, that has a flat round reel holder on top. It, too, comes in a variety of colors, but like the Virtual Viewer, is also sold only in gift sets with reels.

To date, the View-Master name and concept have survived for almost three-quarters of a century through numerous company sales and mergers, but once View-Master was officially designated a “pre-school” product, that’s exactly what it became: a toy for very young children. View-Master was even one of the original inductees into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1989.

On the other hand, evidently I’m not the only one who thinks that View-Master is more than a mere toy. Back in 2009, the University of Missouri-Columbia football team was led by an outstanding quarterback by the name of Chase Daniel. He was so good that he was on the short list for that year’s Heisman Trophy. So what did the decision-makers in Mizzou’s Athletic Department do? Mizzou viewerMizzou reelBought 2,500 black View-Master viewers emblazoned with “Mizzou Football” in gold on the front (Mizzou’s colors being black and gold), made 2,500 View-Master reels (black with the gold Missouri Tigers logo in the center) of Daniel in action, and sent the set to all Heisman Trophy voters and national media outlets in a special black and gold View-Master box entitled “Mizzou’s Heisman View!” But while the college football sports writers were impressed, the Heisman voters weren’t. Daniel came in fourth in the balloting and Mark Ingram of the University of Alabama won the 2009 Heisman Trophy.

Harry Potter reelToday’s View-Master viewers and reels are produced by Fisher-Price, a Mattel owned company, and all reels are strictly for young kids, with a heavy emphasis on the cartoon character(s) and toy(s) du jour. Gone are the breathtaking travelogs, the fascinating glimpses of people in faraway places, the historical reels of coronations and inaugurations, the outstanding depictions of the world’s flora and fauna, and virtually everything else from View-Master’s glory days at Sawyer’s. In 2009 Fisher-Price announced that it had stopped production of scenic reels (the direct descendants of the original View-Master scenes and scenery reels first sold in 1939), and henceforth would produce only reels featuring animated characters. How sad.

But take heart! All is not lost! A strong collectors’ market has sprung up among those of us who know in our hearts that View-Master was never a toy in the classic sense of that word, even though some of our happiest childhood memories are of the hours and hours we spent entranced by those glorious reels. And we also know from personal experience that children are willing – even eager – to watch and learn about considerably more than just the latest mindless cartoon! The old black and brown Bakelite viewers may not have a particularly flashy appearance, but they’re durable as all get out and still work perfectly after more than half a century. And the vintage reels are just as fascinating as when we first saw them – or wish we’d seen them but somehow never managed to add a particular one to our collection.

Model C boxModel E boxHere at Santa Fe Trading Post we’ve assembled a collection of over 800 View-Master reels and 3-reel sets, plus the Bakelite viewers to view them in. We also have a number of vintage catalogs, price lists, mailers, and boxes that are collectibles in their own right.

Queen Elizabeth Coronation reelSo go ahead and satisfy your curiosity. Was Queen Elizabeth ever that young? Did Phoenix really look like that before urban sprawl? Whether your desire is to “visit old friends” or introduce your kids and grandkids to the wonderful world of classic View-Master reels, you’re SFTP sleevesure to find plenty of titles. And don’t worry about unprotected “naked” reels that never came with sleeves or lost their sleeves over the decades. Ol’ Swaphos has solved that problem by designing our very own SFTP View-Master protective sleeve that we believe will itself become a collectible in years to come! Happy viewing!

 

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