It’s cold outside. It’s raining. Perhaps you don’t feel well. How do you amuse yourself on cold days, rainy days, and quiet days? Not too long ago, adults and children alike reached for the View-Master. View-Masters provide a look into the past, as well as laid-back entertainment.
Though morphed into a children’s toy, the original 1939 View-Master specialized in 3-D nature scenes for adults. In a day before the Internet and home television, View-Master reels allowed people to engage in armchair travel. At the same time they could marvel at the colors created by Kodachrome film. The beautiful beaches of Hawaii, the mountains of Germany, and the wonder of Hoover Dam all found a home on these reels. The viewer was small enough to easily pass from hand to hand so everyone could enjoy the scenes.
Special orders, yes sir!
The first viewers were circular and just a little larger than the reel itself. You can see the shape of the original viewer in this copy of the U.S. Patent from 1939. In the 1940s the U.S. Army used those little round viewers to teach troops how to identify aircraft. Families at home got spotter card decks; servicemen got View-Master reels. Training consisted of several reels. The Study Reel provided photos of one plane from several angles, while the Test Reel asked the student to identify seven different planes.
Bringing the past to life
Many reels brought new life to old stereoscope cards and presented them to a new audience. Whether you loved old trains, national monuments (from many nations), or black and white battle photography, you could find it all in the new View-Master reel. Even when new, View-Masters provided a look into the past. Some of the actual photography on the reels dated to 1900 or before.
Lots of adults treasured fond memories of pouring over a stereoscope at a grandparent’s home. One card showed a double picture that when inserted into the frame became 3-D. It was like magic! When View-Master reproduced some of those old cards on their reels they proved a hit. The View-Master was invented by Wilhelm Gruber, a man fascinated with the stereoscope of his youth in Germany. Not only was his invention more portable, but it held seven stereoscope cards on one reel. Seven!
One of the most compelling reasons for View-Masters among adults proved to be the culture and travel scenes. When we inherited a collection of 1950s reels from a grandmother, most of them included scenes like the ones you see below covering places like Colonial Williamsburg, Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish Country, and Holland. I loved pouring over them, seeing how View-Masters provide a look into the past.
Of course, by 1951 View-Master began to release folktales and Disney art on the reels, which cemented their popularity with children. Now we know of them as a children’s toy but that’s not how they began.
Types of viewers
After the first viewers mentioned earlier, the Sawyer company (who actually manufactured the reels) came up with a boxy, metal-and-Bakelite viewer that you see below. Almost all the following View-Master viewers were based on this style.
The top viewer in the photo above has a light attachment bolted to it. It looks like a box with a big red button on the top. This little add-on allowed enthusiasts to view the reels in low light. You could look at them anywhere, as long as you had an electric outlet for the plug that came out the bottom of the attachment. This was a great boon for night-time viewing in houses that didn’t always have adequate light available.
Now that you know all this, how can you explore vintage View-Masters on your own? If you want to see how View-Masters provide a look into the past, you can easily assemble a set via eBay. Other options include local flea markets and vintage stores, Etsy.com, and places that specialize in old toys.