Toyland Treasures: View-Master
Stereoscopic imaging has been around almost as long as photography itself. (One of the more popular nineteenth century concepts was introduced in 1861 by the noted Massachusetts luminary Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice of the same name.) The idea involves taking a pair of side-by-side photographs at the same time, using a special camera with two lenses that are spaced about as far apart as the human eyes are. When viewed together through a special viewer, the result is a striking 3D effect. (These images were already quite popular by the time of the Civil War, and many of the photographs that date from that period were actually captured as stereoscopic plates which can be appreciated in digital form today with the aid of a pair of 3D glasses.)
Following the advent of Kodachrome color film in a small format (16mm) in the 1930s, William Gruber, a German-born organ maker and avid photographer living in Portland, Oregon, developed a method of mounting pairs of stereoscopic Kodachrome images in a circular configuration between heavy paper stock, along with a specially-designed viewer for the circular reels. This idea caught the attention of Harold Graves and Edwin Mayer, partners in what was already by that time a successful photo-finishing business (Sawyer’s), also located in Portland. A new partnership was formed, and the first View-Master prototype was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Large scale production and sales commenced in the early 1940s.
By the 1950s, Sawyer’s View-Master had gained dominance as an alternative in the scenic postcard market, early reels primarily featuring scenic attractions and sold in gift shops and drug stores nationwide. A deal with Disney in the 50s gave the company another big boost. In 1966, Sawyer’s was acquired by General Aniline & Film (GAF), who continued successful production and marketing, with an emphasis that shifted ever more toward child-friendly subject matter – popular movies, television shows, and cartoons – typically sold in packets of 3 reels, featuring 7 image pairs each (21 stereoscopic images total, per set).
The company changed hands several times after 1981, but production still continues today – 25 viewer models, thousands of titles, and 1.5 billion copies of reels later – under current owner, Mattel/Fisher-Price.