Nostalgia, Semiotics & Weird Stuff: A Guide to Collecting View-Master
written for the stereosite by Rebecca Kilbreath, USA
It’s probably safe to assume that most people were introduced to 3D images via View-Master. Introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the handheld 3D viewer was a very popular format that sold literally billions of products from the 1940s right on through the 2000s. Here you’ll find a brief history of View-Master, some images from my collection and key content categories that may be of interest to those looking to start or grow their collections.
View-Master was invented by William Gruber in the 1930s, working with Sawyer’s Inc of Portland, Oregon. Sawyers was then called Sawyer’s Photo Finishing Service and was one of the world’s largest producers of scenic postcards.
The View-Master was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, just a couple of years after the invention of Kodachrome film. View-Master used Kodachrome exclusively until the late 1970s, and because of this, the vast majority of View-master transparencies retain their color and vibrancy over time.
View-Master was originally marketed as an exciting alternative to scenic postcards. The reels were most often sold at photography stores, gift shops at scenic attractions, and via mail order. When I first started collecting, that era was my primary focus. It gave me the opportunity to view these little time capsules, to take a quick vacation to the past.
As my collection grew, so, too did the geographic span of images. View-Master was truly trying to capture photos from every corner of the globe they could get to. There are many reels of far-flung festivals and lots of artisans and people at work, including a man carving ivory in Hong Kong, a woman making filigree silver jewelry in Yucatan, Mexico, a man carving a boat in Panama. There are photos from life on every continent and most major cities, even Russia during the cold war.
There are also many U.S. communities of people represented including Native Americans, Creole and Gullah. Globally, there are groups of people and even entire places that no longer exist. There’s an entire packet dedicated to Zuiderzee, a fishing village in The Netherlands that existed before they built the dams that put the city under water.
I’ve learned a lot about the world and the past through View-Master. And that’s by design.
William Gruber and the folks at Sawyer’s truly believed in this product as an educational tool. There are many examples of educational reels over the years. Notably, in the 1940s, the U.S. military purchased around 100k viewers and several million reels. From range estimators to in-air identification, these tools were used in training. Other educational reels produced included mushroom identification, flower identification, a sweeping history of Chinese art and medical reels dedicated to body dissection.
The educational reels overlap with another key component of Saywer’s View-Master business that was there from the beginning: the production of commissioned commercial reels. Commercial reels sold just about anything you could name, from bourbon to toothpaste to farm animals. Movie preview reels are some of the most sought-after by collectors. They were used exclusively in movie theaters as a way to promote upcoming movies during the 3D movie craze of the 1950s.
Also in the 1950s, Sawyer’s purchased Tru-Vue, the company’s main competitor. While this wiped out the competition, it also captured the licensing rights to Walt Disney Studios. Four years later, Disneyland would open, and the rest is history. It was a wildly successful partnership for both brands that spanned many decades. There in many who just collect View-Master’s Disney items and that’s probably enough to keep a person busy for years.
Another area for collectors and a big thing for Sawyer’s in the 1950s, involved their end-to-end service for personal reels. They sold a View-Master personal stereo camera, film cutter and mounting supplies. The even sold a 3D projector called the Stereo-Matic 500 that required a silver screen and polarized glasses. A budding photographer could do everything themselves from start to finish, but if you didn’t want to make your own reels, the fine folks at Sawyer’s would do it for you via their mail-in service.
The Toy Shelf
Most people associate View-Master with cartoons and pop culture. And that’s partly because, in the 1960s, GAF Corporation purchased View-Master. They leaned heavily into pop culture and kids reels. And, while they saw success, by the late 1970s, cost cutting measures led to GAF switching to lesser film stocks and quality overall dropped. View-Master changed hands a couple more times but by the late 1990s was owned by Mattel and nestled under the Fisher-Price brand, placing it firmly in the preschooler toy aisle.
While that outcome is a bummer for those who don’t care about cartoons and other kids programming, one neat thing about VM is that it’s from literally everyone’s childhood. Any viewer can show you any reel, from 1939 on. So, everybody — from grandma to a modern preschooler — enjoyed the same tactile experience.
There’s something profound in these shared childhood touchpoints.
Many collectors start out by acquiring things they had and loved in childhood. If you were a kid in the 1960s, you might want the Monkees set; in the 1970s, Eight is Enough; in the 1980s, Knight Rider. If you love sci-fi, there’s everything from a visually stunning Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea diorama set to scenes from the set of Dune in 1984. Numerous space-race and NASA-themed reels exist. And many major pop culture franchises are represented including Marvel, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Harry Potter.
In terms of reels directed at children, it seems the diorama reels in particular hold a special place in the hearts of collectors. The scenes created by Florence Thomas, Joe Liptak and other sculptors who worked at View-Master has had a lasting impact. I know this because I started an Instagram account in the fall of 2020 to share images from my View-Master collection, and I was happily surprised to find so many people who love View-Master. Many of my followers are themselves artists — cartoonists, illustrators, puppeteers and painters — who have told me that View-Master serves as inspiration in their own work today. It’s not hard to understand why.
The sculptors did incredible work, and the diorama reels are well worth seeking out. And those of you with an interest in stereoscopic photography should definitely check them out. The tabletop 3D photography produced for these reels is unparalleled.
Semiotics — Who’s Here and Who’s Not
Of course, it would be ridiculous to not mention that the past is a decidedly problematic place.
With a degree in film studies, I can’t help but think about the meanings and symbols found in compelling images from the past. What did the images say to people at the time? Who did they include? And, sometimes, more importantly, who did they leave out?
Erasure is probably the neatest trick VM ever pulled — it’s something that the dominant cultural narrative excels at. Black adult Americans are often absent from reels though smiling children are represented semi-regularly. The state tour packets often include a few surprises and regular people of all races and classes working regular jobs. Many of the reels produced by the View-Master factory in Belgium include incredible glimpses into places it would be difficult to see otherwise, from cheese being made at an abbey in the 1940s in Switzerland to how tea was made in India in the 1950s. The educational components and the desire to share images from every corner of the globe was sincere at Sawyer’s, and I find the farther from home I get in View-Master reels, the more I learn.
And, for me, that’s one of the key elements of collecting: The thrill of discovery. While I love to see places and people I would otherwise never see, there’s a special place in my heart for the weirder stuff.
I enjoy images of tourists traps, of festivals and kitschy events — like drunken revelers at Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnival in the 1940s.
A few more weird things I’ve found and loved: There are two entire commercial reels dedicated to Hereford Ranch’s Heifer sale of 1953. Each cow looks alike unless you know something about buying livestock.
The Paris packet is fantastic and includes this image with the caption “tramps live under the bridges of Paris.” I just don’t think they ever would have included such an image in a reel about the United States.
A bizarre FBI packet features a made-up kidnapping plot but takes place at the real FBI headquarters and feautres a 3D photo of J. Edgar Hoover.
And even though kids reels are somewhat outside my wheelhouse, there are many fun ones to be found. I just recently discovered these creepy-hilarious Hugga Bunch reels from 1985.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to View-Master content categories. One of the best things about View-Master is that it covered so many subjects that, as my personal interests have evolved, so, too, has my collection.
Rebecca Kilbreath (Wheaton, Illinois, USA)
I’ve been collecting View-Master reels since the late 1990s but it wasn’t until the dreary pandemic winter of 2020 that I started to share my collection on Instagram. During the day I work as a writer and editor, but in the evenings I travel to the past via tiny 3D photos. Cataloging my collection and thinking about what the images mean as I look at them lets me use my useless degrees in library science and film studies.