In addition to mediums such as 8mm and 16mm film, and of course story books and comics - and before the advent of the domestic video cassette recorder - another way to stay in touch with one's favourite cinema and television characters in between screenings was via the humble 'View-Master'.
A successor to the popular 19th century stereograph viewer developed by American physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, the story of the View-Master begins with a photo-finishing company and publisher of postcards based in Portland, Oregon, USA called Sawyer's Inc. The company was established in 1911 and became part-owned by brothers Fred and Edwin Mayer, who bought into the company in 1918.
Ambitious and forward thinking, Sawyer's were always looking to expand. The company's openness to new ideas was rewarded, when their president, Harold Graves - who joined the company in 1926 - had a chance meeting with a young German immigrant called William Gruber. Gruber - an organ maker - was an avid photographer who was absorbed by the concept of presenting stereo images in a new way. Whilst on honeymoon with his wife Norma at Oregon Caves, Gruber stumbled upon an elaborate photography set-up whilst out for a walk taking stereo photographs. The equipment was owned by Harold Graves.
Graves - who was there to photograph deer - was intrigued by the curious double camera Gruber was using and struck up a conversation. Gruber explained his method of using a pair of cameras to take two pictures simultaneously and went on to describe his ideas on how they could be mounted for use in a new type of stereo viewer. Graves saw the perfect opportunity for his company to develop and market the idea and invited Gruber to join Sawyer's in order to bring his ideas to fruition.
With the introduction of Kodak's 'Kodachrome' film in 16mm format in 1935 making colour transparencies practical, the View-Master was introduced four years later at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and began life as a form of home-entertainment for adults.
It improved upon the traditional stereograph, in that it offered seven stereo views on a circular cardboard reel, compared with the stereograph's single stereo view per card, and utilised Kodachrome colour transparency film to great advantage.
Although still enjoyed by adult collectors to this day due to the vast range of subject matter covered, the View-master has become increasingly more established as a children's toy over the years as other forms of visual entertainment have become progressively more sophisticated.
From 1939 to 1950, View-Master reels were sold individually and in 1951, Sawyer's began grouping their vast catalogue into themed sets. In the same year they eliminated their chief competitor by buying out rival company 'True-Vue' which produced stereo views on 35mm strips. Significantly, they also acquired Tru-Vue’s license with Walt Disney Studios.
By the mid-1950s Sawyer’s were fully exploiting this asset, producing reels devoted to Disney’s growing range of characters, the newly-opened Disneyland, and their popular television shows of the time. By 1957 virtually all production had shifted to focus on three-reel sets. The association between Disney and View-Master continues to this day.
In 1966 Sawyer's was acquired by the General Aniline & Film (GAF) Corporation. The catalogue continued to grow along with new packet designs to reflect the change of ownership.
The change also marked a shift to coverage of other entertainment media which encompassed movies and television of the day. This began the period of production which is of the greatest interest to the cinema and television merchandise collector. Many of the most classic television shows from both sides of the Atlantic were immortalised on View-Master sets, often being specially photographed on set using the special stereo cameras. This brought favourite TV characters to life like they had never been seen before: in 3D and vivid colour during an age when many shows were still made and/or viewed in black and white.
In 1977, GAF changed the film stock used in manufacture from Kodak to its own line. However, the stock was inferior and is now known to turn red over time, making 1977 a significant milestone for collectors.
GAF sold View-Master in 1981 for $24 million to a group of investors headed by Arnold Thaler, director of Ekco Housewares, and it became known as ‘View-Master International’. The familiar packet was replaced by a hanging blister-pack containing only three reels and no booklet or other material.
Six years later, the thriving ‘View-Master International’ purchased the Ideal Toy Company and changed its name to View-Master Ideal. In 1989 the line sold for the third time to Tyco Toys Inc. which then merged with Mattel Inc. in 1997. Shortly after the merger with Mattel, Inc., the View-Master brand shifted to Mattel subsidiary Fisher-Price.
Around twenty five viewer types and over 1.5 billion reels have been manufactured over the years, yet despite this, every reel made will work in any model ever produced.
The sets produced to tie-in with classic television shows now form a whole collecting field of their own and can fetch surprisingly high prices. The subject of exactly which is the rarest of these sets is debatable, but if price fetched is truly indicative, then without doubt, the sets produced in the mid-1960s to tie-in with shows ‘The Munsters’ and ‘The Addams Family’ are two of the rarest.