I remember as a child how my brother and I would get all excited when the end of the school year finally rolled around and we were looking forward to summer break. Mom and dad always planned a two-week vacation and this particular year in memory would be no exception. We would be on our way to take in the sites of our nation's Capitol in Washington, D.C. Knowingly, it would mean some new packets of View-Master reels for each of us and they would be the topic of conversation for hours. It sure gave mom and dad a much needed break from the usual "are we there yet?" cries from the back seat.
The View-Master has a long history dating back to the late 1930s in Portland, Ore. It was initially thought of by William Gruber and Harold Graves. Graves, who was president of Sawyers Photographic Services, saw the potential of Gruber's camera rig, developed for taking stereo photographs. The pair formed a partnership and View-Master history was on the move in 1938. Graves must have really liked the idea; by the end of 1938 the first viewers and reels were in production. The idea caught on and not just with children. The viewers and reels were marketed as family entertainment, which was also educational. During the World War II, Sawyers was kept busy making specially commissioned sets of reels, educational reels for the troops aiding them with artillery spotting and aircraft identification, together with tens of thousands of Model B viewers.
In 1951, Sawyers purchased rival company Tru-Vue. This acquisition gave Sawyers a Disney license and Disney reels were released soon after. Sawyers was bought by GAF in 1967. GAF failed to maintain the momentum, despite innovation of products like the Talking Viewer-Master. In 1981, the View-Master International Group (VMI) bought View-Master and in 1984 the Ideal Toy Company bought VMI. In 1989, Tyco bought View-Master to add to its successful range of toys. In 1997, Mattel Inc. (best known for the Barbie Doll) merged with Tyco. The View-Master name is now owned by Fisher-Price. Any of these change-of-ownership dates are used by collectors as a cut-off point for their collections. The year 1981 was probably one of the most popular because it was around 1981 that the packets were replaced by blister packs. Despite changes, modern View-Master products are still attractive to children and many collectors alike.
Vintage View-Masters and reels are available and still considered a fun source of entertainment as well as educational. I have added some helpful research data to stimulate some further interest. Here's wishing you all that reel vacation.
Freelance writer Ellen Charland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.