The History of View-Master - September 20th, 2006

Mary Ann & Wolfgang Sell

The Sells are the foremost View-Master authorities. Mary Ann is past president of the National Stereoscopic Association. Mary Ann was first attracted to View-Master as a child borrowing reels from her local library. Today, she and Wolfgang have a comprehensive collection of View-Master reels and equipment, ephemera, and other stereo cameras. The couple have a web site and have published books and articles on View-Master.

The Sells by Lansdale

After an introduction and welcome by Robert Wilson, one of our local stereo and images experts, Wolfgang, assisted by Mary Ann, gave us a fast-paced anecdotal presentation on View-Master and its famous little seven image reels. Like most recent speakers, he chose to use software (PowerPoint) on a laptop rather than the now old fashioned 35mm slides and mechanical projector.

The Sells by
Robert Lansdale

The story begins with the Sawyer's Inc. company, a Portland Oregon publisher of photo postcards. Sawyer's Inc. were always looking for ways to expand. For example, they moved into commercial photo processing building on their in-house skills. It was this openness to new markets that resulted in the creation of the View-Master after Sawyer's president Harold Graves had a serendipitous meeting with a young German immigrant.   

William Gruber, an organ maker and itinerant piano tuner, was an avid photographer and stereo enthusiast who dreamed about a new way to present stereo images. The young German immigrant and his new wife Norma, took their honeymoon at  "The Lodge at Oregon Caves". Sawyer's president Harold Graves was also at the Lodge for a much different reason - he was intent on photographing the deer at the lodge. Gruber wandered into Graves' elaborate photo set-up while out for a walk taking stereo photographs.  

Graves was curious about the strange double camera Gruber was using and struck up a conversation. William explained how he used a pair of Kodak cameras to take two pictures simultaneously, creating a stereo pair. He went on the describe his idea of printing the stereo pairs as small transparencies, mounting them on a reel to be viewed with a simple hand viewer. Graves realized that his company was in an ideal position to run with Gruber's idea, and the young immigrant soon joined Sawyer's to make his idea a reality.

Harold Graves and the cameras he used to shoot subject matter for the postcards
William Gruber, inventor of the View-Master
The Lodge at Oregon Caves
The modern day View-Master logo

The little reels hold seven stereo pairs. Pulling a lever on the viewer changes views from one image to another. In 1935, Kodak introduced Kodachrome in 16mm format making colour transparencies practical. The View-Master and its stereo reels were introduced four years later at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. 

The first viewers, like the prototype, were round with a clam-shell door that opened to insert a reel. In the 1950s the almost indestructible rectangular model C viewer was introduced with a slot that accepts the little reels. The hand viewers were later joined by a variety of little stereo projectors. 

The first reels were all hand assembled. The tiny transparencies, or chips as they were named by Sawyer's, were carefully positioned and the reel sandwich was then heat sealed. Gruber designed an automatic, air-driven machine to do the assembly. Years later efforts were made to make a computer operated version, but it lacked the precision of the original pneumatic design.

original 1939 style View-Master reel
Gruber's pneumatic reel assembly machine

Wolfgang's talk was peppered with insider information and anecdotes. For example, he related how Gruber was once taken for a spy. In the late 1930s, Gruber placed a prepaid order for lenses with a German firm. When war was declared Sawyer's thought their money was lost. Surprisingly, a refund cheque arrived from the Nazi government. When Gruber went to the local bank to collect and cash the cheque, he was filmed by the FBI and arrested. Waiting trial, Gruber was sent inland to Idaho so he couldn't signal Japanese ships! He was called back to Portland three times to repair the production machines which ironically were stamping out training reels for the US military! The case eventually went to court and was thrown out when it was learned that the FBI's only evidence was the cheque cashing film. 

Initially, scenery packets and government training reels were the mainstay of the business. A later acquisition provided access to Disney characters allowing Sawyer's to expand their market to children.     

Post-war, Sawyer's continued to seek government contracts (e.g. Forest Services) to assure a ready supply of film. In 1950, Sawyer's began construction of their own plant outside Portland with its infamous water tower. Plant operations dumped waste water back on the ground where it entered the water table. The resulting pollution was later suspected to be the cause of serious health problems initiating long running law-suits. The factory is gone now, but the tower remains.

Early View-Master Christmas promotion brochure showing the original round viewer
The round and octagonal viewers
girls doing the assembly during the war years

View-Master continued to innovate and market new products - viewers, including talking viewers, bright colours instead of the old black and brown models, fancy packaging - even a canister offering a number of reels and a viewer. On the cost reduction side, viewer assembly and packaging slowly evolved into an automated process that eventually moved to Mexico. In Wolfgang's opinion registration isn't as accurate in these viewers as in the old hand assembled ones.  

Most original images for the reels are taken with 2 1/4 square cameras and then copied to 16mm stock to create the transparencies. The company invented a variety of copy machines over the years, some using 16mm cameras to record the desired number of copies on a strip of film.

View-Master embraced the 1950s mini-boom in stereo by offering a personal stereo camera. Working models of the camera and supporting materials existed as early as 1945. At first, processed film was sent to Sawyer's for mounting. Later a special personal reel and accessories were designed so customers could do their own mounting. The personal reels had a metal core with paper covers. Cut-outs in the metal core accepted the stereo pair chips and held them in accurate alignment. The special machine that made these reels still works today, but sadly the moulds needed to stamp the metal cores have worn out. Used personal reels go for $3 or $4 each these days.   


And girls once more doing assembly two decades later
The View-Master stereo camera
The personal reel that let consumers mount their chips accurately
Florence Thomas creating a scene

When Sawyer's moved into making reels for children, they hired artists to create small clay figures. The figures were posed in carefully crafted scenes and photographed with a single camera mounted on a stereo slide bar. In some cases the models were moved before the second of the stereo pair was shot to enhance stereo depth. 

Wolfgang mentioned a number of the artists, giving for each a brief biography and history of their work with View-Master. Much of the art work in the early years was by Florence Thomas. Her models were carefully hand sculpted and painted. Thomas appeared on many TV shows in response to the interest of View-Master customers. Her assistant, Joe Liptak, went on to be one of the best artists in the View-Master stable, creating the models for most of the the Disney packets. 

Wolfgang described one shoot for the Gulliver story. Liptak created the set and Lilliputians and an actor was hired to portray the much larger Gulliver. When the actor failed to arrive on time, one of the paint crew was seconded to play the part!


a Monkey Business image
set-up to shoot a scene

Like any business, many products never make it to full production for various reasons. The Star Wars reels are an example. They fell victim to unresolved licensing disputes with the owners of the Star Wars property. Monkey business was another. This cheerful series failed to get executive support.

Many celebrities and their families were featured in View-Master reels and marketing materials - Danny Thomas and his family, Fess Parker, Roy Rogers with Dale, Trigger and his dog Bullet, and even Lassie. Flea market browsers occasionally find a photo of Roy Rogers with a View-Master reel and think they have a rare find worth thousands unaware that View-Master produced millions of copies. 

One of Gruber's creations is the very famous Atlas of Human Anatomy. It was produced as a series of spiral bound books, each with a set of reels with some of the best photographs ever taken of human anatomy. Wolfgang showed photos of View-Master staff creating the images. In one, a lower jaw is the subject and a View-Master projector mounted on a tripod is used as a spot light. The series is offered today in digital format for viewing by computer.

Roy Rogers with a View-Master reel
shooting a scene for the Human Anatomy series
William Gruber at home in the mountains
The Gruber memorial plaque

View-Master's best salesman, Charlie Van Pelt, collaborated with the Sells on View-Master history. Wolfgang tells how Charlie was hired and given simple directions: go and sell. In doing this, Charlie became a top salesman in short order. He was a strong champion for the scenic reels and his efforts kept the whole genre in production. Now that Charlie has retired, Wolfgang predicts the scenics will die out.

After William Gruber's death in 1967, a memorial in his honour was placed at the factory and as requested, his ashes were spread up on Mount Hood, one of his favourite mountain tops. Casts of his foot prints mark the spot today. After the factory closed, Fisher-Price agreed to move the rock holding William Gruber's memorial plaque to his son's property out on Bainbridge island in Washington State. 

Wolfgang wrapped up the presentation with shots of the Sell family's View-Master collection which includes many one-of-a-kind items such as William Gruber's German-English dictionary;  props from many of the packets marketed over the years - and mementos from some that never made it out of the factory. Mary Ann and Wolfgang's deep interest in View-Master naturally expanded into an interest in "all cameras that sport two lenses". 

After a fast paced Q&A session, each person in the audience received mementos of the evening - a lenticular 3D image and a three reel set especially made for Fisher-Price employees and their families a few years ago. 

When I arrived home and showed my wife Carol, she rummaged around in her personal store room and returned victorious with an old red and blue shoe-box. Lifting the lid she carefully lifted out her cherished model C viewer from fifty years ago and moments later we were looking at the new reel set.

some of our speakers' collection
Mary Ann Sell, PHSC President Ed Warner, and Wolfgang Sell
Bob Lansdale captures a rapt audience
Carol's model C viewer and some of her reels from the 1950s

Thanks to Mary Ann and Wolfgang who generously gave me a copy of the presentation CD so I could extract the images used on this page. The PowerPoint file was converted to Acrobat PDF and the images extracted and adjusted in Photoshop CS2. Contents and images are ©2006 by Mary Ann and Wolfgang Sell. Portraits and room scenes are ©2006 by PHSC. Contact PHSC if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

Click on the small images to see a larger version in a separate window.

Bob Carter

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