A View-Master is a small viewing device which allows users to see three-dimensional images, also known as a stereo images, contained on a viewing disk known as a ‘reel’.
Background and history of the View-Master
The View-Master was developed by photographer William Gruber and Howard Graves, who produced scenic postcards for the company Sawyer's Photo Services.
It was introduced to the public at the New York World's Fair in 1939, and sold through photographic stores and giftshops by Sawyer’s as an updated form of 3D postcard featuring views from scenic locations.
During the early years the View-Master was used for a range of important purposes, such as training army officers during World War II (the U.S Army purchased 100,000 viewers during the period) and the creation of an extensive atlas of human anatomy for students.
In 1950 the company built a factory in Beaverton, Oregon, and one year later bought out their competitor Tru-Vue (acquiring the licensing rights to Disney characters as part of the deal).
Throughout the 1950s the company grew more successful, producing ever-more elaborate viewers and a huge range of viewing reels. By the 1960s, however, the View-Master began to be regarded as a toy for children.
Viewers were constructed of a lightweight plastic, rather than the heavier, more hard-wearing Bakelite, and the subject matter of reels began to shift towards cartoons, films, television series’ and popular culture. This shift was led by the acquisition of Sawyer’s by the (GAF) Corporation in 1966.
In 1977 GAF changed the film used for View-Master reels and began using its own brand of film with a far lower quality and a tendency to turn images red over a period of time.
View-Master was sold again in 1981 to a group of investors, under whom it flourished. In 1987 the company purchased the Ideal Toy Company and became View-Master Ideal (VMI). VMI was later bought out by Tyco Toys in 1989, and View-Master became part of the Mattel brand during a merger in 1997.
Collecting rare and vintage View-Masters and reels
The first thing to note when collecting View-Masters and reels is that the reels and technology used have remained the same since their introduction, meaning the earliest reels can be viewed on brand new viewers and vice versa.
The early Bakelite viewers of the 1940s and 50s were so durable and hard-wearing that they can often be found for sale today in good working order. The Bakelite Model C Viewer is by far the most common, but its high quality means many collectors use it as their viewer of choice.
When it comes to reels, collectors can choose almost any subject. The most sought after are those produced before the film change by GAF in 1977, as reels later than this have generally been discoloured in some way and are of a far lower quality.
The subject matter and rarity of a reel determines its value. The majority of reel packs (in good condition with no missing or damaged pictures) can sell from less than $1 up to $10. However, there are rare examples – a limited-edition 1953 reel featuring the Vincent Price film The House of Wax sold for a price of over $300. It had been produced for use in cinema lobbies to advertise the 3D effects in the film, and was not meant for public sale.
The huge variety and relative low prices of viewers and reels means that it can be easy and fun to build a large collection of View-Master reels on any given subject, but the variety also means that from time to time rarities crop up that can sell for several hundred dollars to dedicated collectors.
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