Initially designed for sale in camera, drug and gift stores, View-Master production dates to 1939. View-Master reels were introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and at the 1940 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco.
The View-Master was intended as an alternative to the scenic postcard, and was originally sold at photography shops, stationery stores and scenic-attraction gift shops. The main subjects of View-Master reels were the Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon.From there, the line of titles grew to include a host of scenic attractions featuring everything from Crater Lake in Oregon to Miami Beach in Florida.
Soldiers Turn to View-Master
In the early 1940s, film and paper were scarce, and View-Master production nearly came to a halt, due to the onset of World War II. However, a large contract to produce airplane and ship identification and range estimation reels saved the product from potential oblivion. The military purchased 100,000 Model B, or round, viewers and six million reels during the war.
Although scenic reels were View-Master’s forte, the company spread out a bit in the late 1940s with the inclusion of a series of children’s fairy-tale reels. These single-sleeved reels bore the identifying prefix “FT.” Clay figure models were initially a creation of Lee Green Studios in Hollywood and later at the View-Master art studios in Portland, Oregon. Dozens of reel titles came to be using the great diorama effect created by tabletop photography.
Acquisition Earns Access to Disney
Keeping ahead of the competition, View-Master purchased the assets of its main rival, Tru-Vue, in 1951. This acquisition resulted in obtaining the license to use Disney characters, previously held by Tru-Vue. Since that time, the company has produced many Disney and other cartoon and character favorites. Some of these were as clay figures, others as stereo cells, and still, others use actual products in the reel set up, as was the case with Barbie and G.I. Joe.
All reels since the company began are viewable in any viewer. Newer reels from the last few years have a colorful sticker over the center hole but still, work in any viewer. In 2003, Fisher-Price came forth with a new viewer where the reel enters horizontally rather than vertically, but that design was the subject of a dismiss.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, View-Master brought forth character viewers (Mickey Mouse, Big Bird, Batman, Casper, etc), but these were short-lived and abandoned in favor of colorful versions of regular production viewers. Today viewers and reels are produced by Basic Fun under an agreement with Fisher-Price. There is a wide variety of gift sets and reels with colorful graphics. Some of the new titles include Minions, Star Wars, Hello Kitty and an NYC Taxi viewer. These new titles can be found online and in many retail stores.
View on pricing
Condition determines value. As with any other paper collectible, it is important that View-Master reels be free of mold, mildew, brown foxing spots, etc. Reels missing scenes are virtually worthless. Those reels with paper blisters (a result of heat/moisture) are valued at less than 1/4 of mint reels. Three-reel packets need to be complete with outer color envelope, three reels, and inner story booklet if indicated. Any part of the packet or booklet that is torn or damaged drops the value of the set. Adjust prices accordingly. Prices shown here are for MIP—Mint in Package—examples. Those in excellent condition command about 85 percent of the MIP price.
Sci-Fi and television and movie titles tend to sell high—scenic and cartoon titles are a little lower than in previous years. Some images on the reels have “gone magenta,” meaning the film has turned red. This is a result of the type of film used. Usually, all issues of that packet are red. One good example is the clay figure packet of Dracula. It is important to note this problem when considering condition.
Since the death of Michael Jackson in 2009, “Thriller” reels and gift sets have started demanding high prices with the gift sets selling for $100 or more.
Enjoy a vintage commercial for View-Master.
A good place to check for additional information is View-Master Collectors Group on Facebook. While there is no official list of titles, the View-Master Database attempts to build a complete list of every individual reel, set and their variants known to have been issued.
Recent eBay View-Master sales
Prices are set to the nearest dollar and without shipping.
• James Arness Marshal Dillon Vintage View-Master With Gunsmoke Episode Reels, $127.50
• Sealed 1993 Vintage Jurassic Park View-Master 3-D Gift Set by TYCO, rare, $110.
• Vintage View-Master Lot with two viewers and 39 Reels featuring Kung Fu, Casper StarTrek and Lassie, $75.
• Vintage Red 3-D View-Master Viewer Model L with 24 reel bundle, $76.
• Vintage 1960s View-Master with case and 13 picture packs of TV shows and movies, $62.