Sure, there have been plenty of technological breakthroughs over the years that make something like a View-Master seem more than a bit antiquated. But there is such a simplistic charm to this little plastic box that allowed the young mind to travel to faraway lands, once visited or never before explored, and see them in all of their three-dimensional splendor. Everyone who has experienced the pleasure of a View-Master distinctly remembers the little lever and the clicking sound it made when advancing to the next frame. And any tourist of earlier decades can remember a time when seemingly every destination, not to mention every department and toy store, displayed racks containing hundreds of little discs. Today, we look at the history of, and our fascination with, the View-Master. Let’s start with this wonderful commercial from the early 70s, featuring Henry Fonda and Jody Foster:
To trace the history of the View-Master, one must go all the way back to 1938. A photography buff named William Gruber envisioned a contraption that could take a slide, consisting of two overlapping images, that when looked at through two eyepieces would present a three-dimensional picture. It was a great idea, and one that might have remained just that, had Mr. Gruber not crossed paths with another tourist named Harold Graves while both were visiting the Oregon Caves National Monument. Mr. Sawyer was an employee of Sawyer’s Photographic Services and soon, the two photo enthusiasts were talking shop into the wee hours of the morning. A year later, they set out to create their first prototype of what would come to be known as a View-Master. The earliest discs consisted of natural wonders such as Virginia’s Luray Caves and Colorado’s Pike’s Peak and they marketed their invention to nature buffs. And once the View-Masters started clicking away, they didn’t stop – the simple contraption was an instant hit.
When America went off to war in the early forties, the military took interest in the devices as a inexpensive and efficient way to train the troops. They purchased a staggering 10,000 View-Masters and over six million reels. A few years after WWII , in 1951, Sawyer acquired the Tru-Vu Stereo Film Company. This deal included the rights to their Stereochrome viewers and, more importantly, the rights to use Disney characters, and also feature an up-and-coming kingdom called Disneyland. Soon, kids everywhere were begging for a View-Master. In 1966, a company called The General Aniline and Film Corporation (or GAF) purchased Sawyer’s invention. A maker of Super 8 film and slides, they were able to license to rights to dozens of films and TV shows over the next two decades. The library eventually grew immense. Along with cartoon characters and TV shows and the nature stuff from earlier years, seemingly every tourist destination made disks available to lure potential visitors – or act as souvenirs once they got there. Places like Universal Studios, Marineland and the San Diego Zoo all were quick to produce the little disks, which were either sold separately or in 3-reel packets.
One of the many charms of the View-Master is that no batteries or electricity were required – all one needed was a decent light source to aim the device at; either a lamp or the sun would do just fine. There were no loose parts, other than the reels, and the View-Master itself was nearly indestructible. Later innovations included the Talking View-Master, which played an audio track to accompany the images and a View-Master ShowBeam projector, so that the whole family could watch the show that one could now project upon a wall.
By the early 80s, sales started to wane, as the public eventually became enamored with things more electronic in nature. But that didn’t spell the end for the View-Master. Fisher-Price bought the rights and continues to market the device to its young audience. The Planet of the Apes disks from yesteryear have given way to new stars like Shrek and SpongeBob, but the appeal remains.
And in a world where people take the enormous amounts of imagery available to them for granted, it is almost hard to imagine a day when a simple picture viewing box could provide hours of entertainment to kids of all ages. But for everyone that ever experienced the joy of a View-Master, the memories remain as vivid as each little frame – not to mention that resounding click that we loved so well. Were you the proud owner of a View-Master back in the day? We’d love to hear your memories in our comments section. And be sure to tell us about your disk collection. Did you collect any favorites on a family trip, or have a favorite television or move set? Help us all better remember the View-Master, as we tip our hats to this amazing little toy.