In this edition of my collector’s guide series we will discuss the Viewmaster, the 3D still picture viewer that’s been a staple toy item for nearly 70 years, and the demise of travel destination reels for it. The Fisher-Price division of Mattel, who currently owns the rights to Viewmaster, recently announced that they had quietly ceased production of the once popular travel reels in December of 2008, citing declining sales. While some kid oriented reels will remain in production, such as Shrek and Dora the Explorer, Viewmaster reels of places like the Grand Canyon and Alamo are no more. Will these reels and even the Viewmasters themselves become collectibles in the near and short term? Lets take a look…
Guide Continued Below…
We’ll begin by taking a quick look at the history of the Viewmaster. The 3D picture viewer was invented in 1939 by two inventors, William Gruber and Harold Graves, who worked for Sawyer’s Photo Services. They created it by blending the existing stereoscope with Kodak’s then new Kodachrome 16mm color film. During WWII the Viewmaster was used for training troops. After the war, Sawyer’s acquired their main competitor, Tru-Vue, and, with it, a lucrative contract with Walt Disney. In 1966, Sawyer’s was acquired by the General Aniline & Film Corporation, aka GAF. They added in a more popular entertainment reels while bringing out a number of new models and demphasizing travel reels. Viewmaster got passed around to different corporate owners until it arrived at Mattel’s Fisher-Price division in 1997 during it’s merger with Tyco.
While there have been many different Viewmaster viewers over the years the basic design of the reels has remained the same. A reel made in 2009 can be viewed in a 1939 era viewer and vice-versa. The reels consist of 14 film slides for 7 pairs of images that when viewed together produce a stereoscopic image. In addition to travel and entertainment viewing, Viewmaster reels have also been used for anatomy lessons and military training.
So, what should you look for in collectible Viewmaster viewers and reels?
First off, look for age. Reels and viewers from the 1940’s and 1950’s aren’t too expensive so far as collectibles go and with the popularity of the Viewmaster fading with the younger set who finds them boring the vintage appeal can only increase. As always, verify the authenticity of the goods in question as best you can. I would suggest that less common travel destinations that are still popular or unusual in some way would be the best bet’s for collectibility. Of course, everybody will have a Grand Canyon reel up for sale.
As for the viewers, look for original vintage Sawyer and Tru-Vue viewers. 1962 marked the switch to cheaper plastics from bakelite so locating a pre-1962 model is a good find. It isn’t easy to locate viewers in excellent condition but you still can run across some in garage and estate sales. Also look for still intact sets with the viewer and matching reels or just matched sets of reels. Keeping a set like this together with kids was tough so finding an intact vintage set is also a good find.
If you have any questions about purchasing vintage Viewmaster viewers and reels, please feel free to ask. I’ll try my best to answer them if I can.