Many a 1970s kid witnessed the wonders of the world through a simple little toy called the View-Master. Seemingly every store and vacation spot displayed huge racks filled with the familiar white discs, each containing a collection of three-dimensional images from a plethora of exotic locales, and just about every 70s TV show, cartoon or movie in existence.
We might never have heard of the View-Master were it not for the coincidental crossing of paths of two photography enthusiasts, both of whom happened to be hiking at the Oregon Caves National Monument. One man, Wilhelm Gruber, was toying with the idea of a simple machine that would allow you to view two slides at once, giving the appearance of a three-dimensional image. The other, Harold Graves, just happened to be the president of an established picture postcard and film developing company. The two found a lot to talk about during that trip, becoming fast friends and eventually collaborating to create the View-Master.
The pair introduced their contraption at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Hoping that it would someday replace traditional postcards, they showed off their invention via two sets of reels, featuring the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns in all their vibrant, three-dimensional glory. The public loved them to the point that the pair couldn’t keep up with the demand. That problem would be solved in the next few years, when mass-production of the View-Master became a matter of national importance.
With the arrival of WWII, the View-Master was commissioned into service as a simple and inexpensive way to train the troops on things like ship and aircraft recognition, thereby exposing over 100,000 U.S. soldiers to the handy device. After the War ended, they opened a View-Master factory in Beaverton, Oregon, in the hopes that those same men might expose their families to the familiar device. The turning point was in 1951, when the company was able to license the rights to the extensive and enormously popular Walt Disney catalog. Soon after, millions of kids begged for a View-Master, especially after 1955, when Disneyland opened its doors.
The toy offered a welcome consolation to any kid who lived too far away to visit Walt’s new amusement park in person. Before long, seemingly every tourist attraction and vacation destination began offering glimpses to the public via a View-Master. For a prosperous populace that was taking to American roadways in greater numbers for summer vacations, these little white disks were a great way to remember all those great places you visited, like Cape Kennedy, The Statue of Liberty, or the world’s largest ball of twine.
In 1966, the company was purchased by General Aniline and Film, better known as GAF. The new owners saw the potential of media-based reel sets and began releasing hundreds of discs that featured popular TV shows, movies and cartoon characters. In 1971, they introduced the larger Talking View-Master which offered an audio narration for each picture, followed a few years later by a View-Master ShowBeam Projector. This cool toy displayed your prized reels on any blank wall so your friends and family could share in the fun.
Looking back, the View-Master may seem a little primitive, especially in a world where digital cameras and images are a dime a dozen. But even though they lost much of their appeal in later decades, you can still purchase View Masters to this day, and many of those reels from yesteryear are now sought-after collectables. Missing, however, are those grand racks filled with discs that offered vivid glimpses of just about every place in the world anyone would care to visit.
Were you the proud owner of a View-Master as a kid? Do you remember what your favorite reels were? We would love to hear all of your memories of this classic toy in our comments section below.