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. 

This pho­to is a night shot of the World’s Fair’s con­sti­tu­tion mall from a very ear­ly View-Mas­ter reel.

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.

Ear­ly reels were sold as alter­na­tives to post­cards. In this scene, a woman takes in a snowy scene in New England.

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. 

An ivory carv­er in Hong Kong.

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? 

This View-Mas­ter pro­mo­tion­al image tells you who the mar­keters thought the reels are for. But it doesn’t tell you what you might get out of them today.

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. 

Insta­gram-pro­file: viewmaster.bex