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Do You Remember The View-Master?

Close your eyes and you can probably picture it: the View-Master toy that became ubiquitous in the toy boxes of American kids during the ’60s and ’70s. A plastic handheld device, the View-Master allowed you to view 3D scenes on slides that pictured everything from popular TV series to Disney shows to exotic locations around the world. The paper disks included seven pairs of images that created the 3D view; simply clicking a small lever advanced each image.

Photo: Flickr.com/Jack Pearce

A Look At How It All Started

During the 19th century, stereoscopes (3D viewers that used cards called stereographs) were relatively popular viewing instruments. In 1932, companies including Tru-Vue, Sightseer, and Novelview produced viewers that used light and transparent film strips rather than picture cards. Around the same time, William Gruber, the inventor of the View-Master, became fascinated by the early stereoscopes and photography. On an excursion to the Oregon Caves in 1938, he began taking photographs using a dual camera tripod and met Harold Graves. At the time, Graves worked for Sawyer’s Inc., a company that manufactured picture postcards. Gruber explained to Graves his use of dual cameras and his vision for a viewer that could present 3D color images. The two began collaborating on what would eventually become the View-Master.

Sawyer’s vision, however, diverged from Gruber’s: Sawyer recognized the appeal that the viewer could have for children, and in 1944, they hired Florence Thomas to create fairy tale scenes that could be incorporated into the View-Master reels, which significantly increased the viewer’s appeal and widened the demographic. In 1951, Sawyer’s purchased Tru-Vue, and along with it, their license to use Disney images.

Originally, Gruber envisioned his invention as an educational tool that would allow viewers to study objects closely. The military bought View-Masters between 1942 and 1945 to train personnel to recognize airplanes and ships in shooting range during World War II. After the war ended, families began using the View-Master as a means of exploring foreign places without the need to leave home.

In 1952, Sawyer’s developed a camera that allowed people to make their own reel using the View-Master Personal Stereo Camera, which was successful for about 10 years. During the ‘60s, the View-Master underwent a significant design change that allowed the viewer to be made with a lighter plastic. During the ’50s, Gruber became friends with Dr. David Bassett, and together they launched a project using cadaver tissue to create an atlas of human anatomy.

Photo: Flickr.com/Detlef La Grand

The ’60s See Big Changes

Sawyer’s was purchased in in 1966 by General Aniline & Film (GAF). The company began producing viewer slides that featured more toys, cartoons, and television shows, such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Gunsmoke, making the View-Master more popular than ever with children. Educational reels included tours of foreign countries, historical artifacts, and more. Then from 1970-1981, the company produced Talking View-Masters that included sound using a transparent phonograph on the back of the reel.

The Tyco company eventually acquired View-Master; in 1997, Tyco merged with Mattel, bringing even more changes to the View-Master line of products. Toy manufacturers began producing reels based on their best-selling toy offerings, including Barbie and G.I. Joe.

Today, Google has transformed the View-Master with its Google Cardboard, a viewer that can be folded by hand and used with an app. Google has also teamed with Mattel to produce the View-Master VR, a childproof product that will allow people to experience virtual reality on their cell phones.