View Master was the toy of its time

WILMINGTON – “It was the best toy ever,” said Rona Mansfield, inn keeper at Whiteface Chalet. “I got it for Christmas in 1962 and I used to spend hours just sitting on my bedroom floor looking at all those wonderful places. I spent almost as much time looking at the order form, trying to decide what I would get next.

Rona’s favorite toy, along with that of millions of other kids in the 1950s and ’60s, was a Sawyer’s View Master -?a stereoscopic marvel that presented the wonders of the world in vibrant color. Her viewer, with its built in backlighting mechanism, provided hours of solitary entertainment?- every parent’s dream after the hustle and bustle of a busy holiday season.

Sawyer’s View Master made its debut at the 1939 World’s Fair, just four years after Kodachrome color film was invented. The 3D viewer, and the round photographic discs that went with it, were the creation of scenic photographer William Gruber and Harold Graves, the president of Portland Sawyer’s Inc., a picture postcard and film developing company.

The men had met by happenstance while both were on vacation at the Oregon Caves National Monument in Josephine, Ore. Upon discovering their common interests in scenic photography, souvenir pictures and postcards, they joined forces to create one of the most marvelous toys of the 20th century.

A bit of history

It all began in 1861 when Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous writer and physician, invented the stereoscope. The stereoscope was a hand-held instrument that consisted of two separate lenses encased in a viewing mechanism that focused on a double image stereocard. The device allowed the eyes to focus on the subject individually, resulting in a 3 dimensional allusion.

The stereoscope became a popular Victorian pastime and nearly every home had one. Some were humble handheld wooden stereoscopes, and others were fancy tabletop models lined with velvet and inlaid with mother of pearl.

Regardless of style, the stereoscope offered a glimpse into the scenic wonders of the world with images of exotic flora and fauna, birds and animals, foreign nations and the people of many cultures. After the turn of the 20th Century, there were great advancements in photography that opened a door of opportunity for stereoscopic exploration. In 1931, the Tru-Vue company of Rock Island, Ill., began to manufacture stereoscopic film strips that went along with the Tru-Vue viewer?- a small, hand-held gadget that had open slots on either side for sliding film strips through.

Tru-Vue subjects were based on scenic wonders, travel, children’s stories and current events. Tru- Vue also held exclusive rights to reproduce Disney characters on their film strips.

It was after the introduction of Kodachrome color film in 1935 that William Gruber of Sawyers began to experiment on improving stereoscopic photography. He began by rigging up a special camera that took two simultaneous photographs of the same subject. (In actuality it was a tripod mounted with two Kodak Bantam Special cameras that were loaded with the new Kodachrome color film.) Once the film was developed, seven sets of pictures were mounted in a circular cardboard disk that rotated in the newly designed View Master viewer.

When Sawyer’s introduced the View Master at the World’s Fair, it appealed to people of all ages. Reel subjects ranged from national parks and monuments to almost every state in the union. Foreign countries, religious themes, Bible stories, fairy tales, animal and circus acts, film stars and cartoon characters were all featured on the reels. The latter subjects made them incredibly popular with children.

Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole on Whiteface Mountain was the first theme park to be featured on View Master reels. The first disc was introduced in 1951, and then in 1956 they introduced a three reel set that featured the many exciting activities that took place at the park.

Pearl Maicus of AuSable Forks was a gnome working at Santa’s Workshop in those days, and she, along with Barbara Mulvey of Wilmington (a potter who worked in one of the demonstration shops), was photographed for the View Master Vacationland series in 1955.

Maicus can be seen in several photographs with the glassblower, reindeer, children and other gnomes and elves, but the best picture of all is the one that was chosen for the cover photo of the reel packet; it shows Maicus along with gnome Mary Reiss (the daughter of theme park founder Julian Reiss) with Santa and his reindeer at the North Pole.