"gratifying mammalian nervous systems since 1988"

25 March 1999
by Mark Frauenfelder

Fans of retrofuturistic design consider the 1939-1940 World's Fair in New York to be a treasure trove of sleek technofetishistic gadgetry, vehicles, and architecture. Besides the Perisphere, the launch of Public Television, and General Motor's Futurama exhibit (a 36,000 square-foot model of the United States as it might look in the year 1960), a new type of stereo-photo viewer was introduced, called the View-Master. Mounted in case of Bakelite (the first entirely man-made plastic) the View-Master accepted paper disks, called reels, that contained small stereo photographs.

Originally marketed as an educational and recreational device for adults, offering scenes from National Parks and other scenic vacation spots, the View-Master is today considered mainly a child's toy. But there's a large group of grown-up View-Master aficionados who not only collect View-Masters and reels, but produce their own custom reels.

Today, we talk to the people with the toughest right-index-finger tendons on the planet:

The View-Master Maniacs

Vintage virtual realists or dual-image daydreamers?

-- you can find hundreds of auctions offering View-Masters and reels.

The View-Master Home Page

Tools & Resources
The View-Master Online Catalog

The View-Master Ultimate Reel List

The View-Master Viewers Book

Custom View-Master Reels
-- Producer of "custom shortrun" View-Master reels.

Model names are used to identify different viewers. The first style made is called Model A. There are names for packaging variations as well -- the "S" series for those made by Sawyers and the "G" series for those made by GAF. Blisters: pimple-like condition on the surface of a reel's cardstock.

Field Notes
The detailed puppetry and elaborate sets used in View-Master's adaptation of fairy tales were made in the late '40s by a Portland artist named Florence Thomas, and later by her assistant Joe Liptak.

Q & A

Tell me a little about yourself.

Michael Levine: I am a lawyer. My hobby is stereo photography and collecting View-Masters, with an emphasis on the rare Australian made View-Masters viewers and reels and clones of View-Masters called PhotoScope and SightSeer. I am probably the only serious collector in Australia.

Jamie Drouin: I'm an artist and work primarily with 2D & 3D photography as well as computer-based imagery.

How did you become interested in View-Masters?

Levine: As a child in the UK I was given a View-Master viewer and reels of Wonders of the Deep. After I looked down the throat of the grouper fish I was hooked!

Drouin: Like most people, I had a View-Master when I was a kid in the early '70s, but my real enthusiasm over the little magic white discs started around four years ago. At that time I was starting to collect interesting toys I remembered from childhood and came across a couple of the claymation fairytale story View-Master reels. I concentrated on collecting these subjects at first, but after a bit of research into the history of the VM I found out that the VM was originally conceived as a tool for educating adults on a variety of subjects, including science, travel, and even very specific subjects such as military airplane identification! I immediately began searching for examples of these reels.

Tell me about your collection.

Drouin: Most of my collection was put together from toy or VM-specific auctions or antique stores during travel in the US (VM doesn't seem to have made as large an impact in Western Canada, where I live, or at least not as much can be found now). The Internet was also an instant way to connect and trade with other collectors around the world, which I made full use of.

Although small by comparison to many other VM collections, my collection contains some very fine examples from the history of the format. I have reels used to teach surgeons delicate reconstruction techniques on various parts of the human body (with close-up full 3D images of the process), reels that were used as promotion for selling designer ceramic tiles for home and business, reels that document stage shows at men's clubs during the 1950s, and several of the sets from popular TV programs and movies such as Lost in Space, Dark Shadows, Hawaii Five-O, Thunderbirds, and Land of the Giants. I also have some very nice examples of the rarer viewers, of which I am very proud to show off to uninterested dinner guests.

I have taken the obsession one step further than most collectors and actually produced my own commercially-made VM reels. The first was produced in 1996 for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, titled Mandate of Heaven. It featured Chinese artifacts from an exhibition of the same name. This reel and special envelope sold worldwide to both VM and Chinese art collectors and received a fair amount of attention for its dynamic photographs. I am currently in post-production on a three-reel set on toy robots.

What are the most valuable View-Master collectibles?

Levine: I have some very rare Australian-made reels and Packets and viewers. I do not think you can point to one reel in the world that is the most rare, although some US made reels are difficult to find. For example the XED (experimental education) reels. Australian reels are difficult to find in good order. The Green and the Black PhotoScope viewers and the extremely rare PhotoScope reels are very hard to find. Australian made SightSeer reels were originally made with the pictures upside down for a special viewer with prisms. They fit into the ViewMaster viewers but you have to hold the viewer upside down (appropriate for stuff from DownUnder). The reels are very hard to find in mint condition.

Drouin: Probably the most valuable, or at least one of the rarest, viewers is the Model 12 which is a round lighted viewer only available in certain parts of Europe. For reels it is probably either the Addams Family or F.B.I. Agent sets, or the "movie preview" reels which were used in theaters during the 1950s to promote upcoming films. Of course, there are many unique viewers and reels that might fetch much higher prices at auctions, such as test reels on subjects that never reached production.

What is your personal favorite View-Master?

Drouin: Probably the black Model E. I think this is one of the nicest designed and functioning viewers and the rarer black finish just adds to the whole effect.

What is your personal favorite View-Master Reel?

Levine: I do not have a favourite reel. I just have too many that I like. I do like many of the commercial, advertising and educational reels, particularly those that were made in the late '40s and early '50s. My favourite set is the 29 volume medical encyclopedia. Of course some of my own reels that I have taken with my View-Master Cameras give me particular pleasure.

Drouin: Based on the quality of the images and the appreciation of the amount of work involved I would say the JOE 90 set. This was a British 60s marionette show made by the same people that did the more popular Thunderbirds. A close second is the reel that features Buster Keaton and his wife doing a routine in a European nightclub. This reel is actually made by Stereorama, one of many VM look-a-likes that turned up over the years.

Tell me about the View-Master collector community.

Drouin: Three years ago I was making one of my daily sweeps through the Internet looking for VM and came across a fellow who wished to sell around 60 fairly common reels in an impromtu auction. The minimum bid was absolutely unrealistic, but there was a note at the bottom that said something to the effect that this auction was to raise funds for an operation on his cat. For some reason I decided that I should write the fellow and tell him how unrealistic the expected price was and perhaps he should try to get a fair market value for the reels [to partially offset his] veterinary fees. He agreed that altering the price for a quick sale would make more sense. Meanwhile, I made a general email plea to my fellow VM collectors asking if they would be interested in putting in $5 each to help the cat, and perhaps dividing up the lot of reels as a small re-imbursement of the donation. What happened over the next week was unbelievable -- this fellow started receiving checks from a number of VM collectors from all over the place and this easily paid for the total medical costs, which if I remember correctly was over US$300! We received photographs of the recovering cat (who had had a cancerous leg amputated) a few weeks after that. I still think back to the huge generosity of my fellow collectors in helping out this poor cat. They are the nicest group of people I have ever had the pleasure of being part of.

Do you know of an interesting netculture? Tell me about it! (This story originally written for Wired News)


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