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). Three years later, VMI bought the Ideal Toy Company and the View-Master company name changed once again to
View-Master Ideal Group. They 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?
In 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.
In 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.
Since the 1997 merger, View-Master has been part of Mattel’s pre-school division, 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.
• the 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? Bought 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.
Today’s 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.
Here 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. So 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 sure 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!