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The View-Master Story

The View-Master Story

Glory Years - Sawyer’s – 1938-1966

Introduced 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.

The 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.

By 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

Hand-lettered reel -
completely semicircular

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 hand-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.

Typeset reel with positioning numbers

You’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 you actually saw a program about the Grand Canyon, it certainly wasn’t in color or 3D. For that you relied on View-Master. And even with our favorite TV heros, if you 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: beginning in 1950, Sawyer’s produced a separate 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.

In 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. Evidently 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.

Personal Stereo Camera

Personal reel

Stereomatic 500 Projector

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. The 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. In the US, the Model E still came in the basic black or brown colors, 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

View-Master reels were originally sold individually in their distinctive blue and white sleeves, with some reels accompanied by a story folder. Sawyer’s 1947 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.

And 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, such as flying to the moon, finding a treasure, or visiting the Land of Giants. These and other special reels are considered to be collector reels and are eagerly sought out by today’s collectors.

In 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. And wasn’t that an exciting time for all of us wannabe Mouseketeers who eagerly plunked ourselves in front of the TV 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.

Sawyer’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 1948-1954

Packet style 1955-1957

Packet style 1958-1960

Packet style 1960-1963

Packet style 1963-1966

 

 

And 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 to 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 today highly sought after 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!

The View-Master Story:

Glory Years - Sawyer’s – 1938-1966
Transition - GAF – 1966-1981
Toyland - Sales and Mergers – 1981-present

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