NEW YORK — Once emblazoned with the slogan “The World at Your Fingertips,” the View-Master system has been a childhood staple for decades, but it was not originally a toy. Introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the viewer that looked like a pair of binoculars was actually a stereoscopic projector created to let adults travel, after a fashion, and see world landmarks up close and in exquisite detail without leaving home. The View-Master was the brainchild of Sawyer’s Photo Services in Oregon, a major producer of scenic postcards in the 1920s.
At first, View-Masters were mostly sold in photography shops and gift shops at popular tourist attractions but later they spread to toy stores, pharmacies and grocery stores nationwide. Countless children have popped a circular cardboard disc, known as a reel, in the View-Master slot and lifted the device to their eyes to gaze upon the wonders it promised. Originally sold in sets of three, each View-Master reel has seven pairs of identical pictures which, when seen through the viewer, appear three-dimensional. Natural wonders were a common motif in early View-Master reels and those featuring Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon were especially popular. A large collection of View-Master items that included a handful of viewers and many reels, with subjects ranging from fine art to natural wonders, made $949 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2017 at Auction Team Breker.
Early stereoscopic images relied on black and white transparencies, but as Kodak introduced color transparencies, View-Master reels were released in color. A group of circa-1940s View-Master reels with English and European scenes, including reels showcasing The Tower of London, Windsor Castle and Kew Gardens, attained $501 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Chiswick Auctions.
This technology also had use beyond tourism and entertainment. In World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces used custom View-Master reels for military training, and companies commissioned reels to advertise their products. Anatomy expert David L. Bassett worked with View-Master’s owners to release a 25-volume atlas that explored the intricacies of the body. A set of Bassett’s Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy in 24 spiral-bound volumes containing 221 View-Master reels plus a vintage viewer brought $310 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018 at Leland Little Auctions.
In 1951, Sawyer’s bought its rival corporation, Tru-Vue, and, as part of the deal, acquired Tru-Vue’s licensing rights to Walt Disney Studios material. It immediately started making reels with Disney characters that were instant favorites. Disneyland’s opening in Anaheim, California in 1955 was a big event, so View-Master issued a collection of Disney View-Master reels to celebrate the arrival of the new amusement park. A circa-1956 Vacationland six-reel set sold for $950 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Van Eaton Galleries. This set included images of Main Street, Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland, and also a Mickey Mouse Club Circus reel.
Corporate ownership of the View-Master brand changed, as did the subject matter of the reels and the substance comprising the case (Bakelite ultimately gave way to plastic). In 1966, Sawyer’s was bought by the General Aniline & Film (GAF) Corporation (later still, Tyco and Fisher Price would gain ownership of View-Master), and the toy and its reels were produced up until 2009. But View-Master’s heyday arguably was the 1960s to the 1970s. GAF hired Henry Fonda as its View-Master spokesman to rhapsodize in its commercials on how the device would “keep children quiet for hours.” It also introduced a talking version of the View-Master to explain what was seen in each image. During GAF’s tenure, View-Master focused less on nature and scenery and more on pop culture. Television shows and movies such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Lost in Space and Jurassic Park were licensed for production as View-Master reels.
While vintage View-Masters and their reels are perennially popular with collectors, memorabilia associated with this brand is also collectable, and typically affordable. Display signs have added crossover collecting appeal such as with a 1950s View-Master reel four-foot-long metal sign that came out of a Sawyer’s Inc, store in Portland, Oregon. It realized $575 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018 at Luther Auctions.
Nostalgia for vanished childhood days has driven dozens of collectible and toy markets to new heights in the last few years. View-Master reels and viewers are still reasonably priced and continue to achieve their designers’ original goals of making education fun.