A Brief History of View-Master
Though it is now known primarily as a child’s toy, View-Master was launched at the 1939 New York World’s Fair as a way to see the world from home in full-color 3-D images. It was marketed as a more exciting souvenir than a traditional postcard and reels were often sold at tourist destinations across the globe. View-Master reels featured beautiful photography of famous places and people through the 1960s.
Medical schools and the U.S. military used View-Master viewers and reels as educational tools, providing 3-D images to students of everything from internal organs to Japanese fighter planes.
In the 1960s, View-Master underwent a change of ownership and became increasingly targeted at children. The reels of that era de-emphasized education and scenic themes and moved aggressively toward entertainment titles focusing on cartoons and popular television programs.
Today, View-Master is owned by Fisher Price and is considered a young child’s toy but the collector market thrives online.
Though the look of the viewers themselves has changed over time the reels have remained consistent. Any View-Master brand viewer will view any View-Master brand reel from any decade. Most vintage items are relatively inexpensive, but the price goes up exponentially for rare items.
Components of Collecting
The View-Master Single Reel List
While it promotes itself as an animated, searchable list of individual reels the best thing about this website is the 360-degree videos of every View-Master brand viewer produced since 1939. This is the most comprehensive visual representation online, featuring 20 distinct viewers and their various attachments. From the earliest “clamshell” style viewer to the brightly colored molded plastic viewers used today, this site features them all. There is also an area to view 360-degree videos of each of the four View-Master projectors available on the collectors market.
20th Century Stereo Viewers
This website provides not only detailed information on every View-Master branded viewer in existence but a long list of knock-off brands with detailed photos and specifications. The site also features images of rare variants in viewers, such as unusual materials or colors used in production. Most importantly for collectors, it offers detailed specifications on the internal projection and overall quality of each View-Master viewer.
The View-Master Ultimate Reel List
The Ultimate Reel List is an invaluable resource. It lists every known reel by logical numeric or alphabetical grouping as well as every known variant in images. For example, due to the View-Master’s many years of production, images were sometimes changed over the years but marketed without changes noted. Just as valuable to collectors, the list provides every known variant of packaging and examples of the various types of packages View-Master employed over the years. The site is hosted by 3DStereo.com but was created by View-Master collector Keith Baird. When Baird died, 3DStereo.com offered to host the site for collectors so his hard work and this beloved resource would not be lost.
Fisher Price/Mattel currently owns View-Master and the official site is the place to discover new releases, most of which are for the virtual reality viewers. I bought one and it has potential but is mostly terrible and expensive. New releases are limited to children’s titles and education; travel reels have been slowly phased out over the years, finally ending production entirely in March 2009 (though there has been talk off and on over the years, I haven’t seen anything noteworthy in awhile. In early 2013 it was announced that Basic Fun had licensed the View-Master name from Fisher Price and is producing new products but they are cheap and basically a nostalgic thing for parents and grandparents to buy very little kids.
Packaging and Booklets
The View-Master Resource
The View-Master Resource provides information on creating personal view-master reels. However, it also helpfully provides scans of envelopes and packaging so if a collector acquires a set of reels without the original envelope it came in, they can print a reproduction from a .pdf file and have a copy of the original packaging. Not as comprehensive as a collector might like but it’s a great a resource if a collector has reels that are in great shape but are missing the packaging.
View-Master Booklet Site (This site appears to have gone offline)
View-Masters were often sold in three-reel sets in an envelope that included a booklet that elaborated on the content of the reels. Often these small booklets were lost or destroyed over time and it’s not always easy to find three reels in a crisp envelope with an intact booklet. This site provides hundreds of high-quality scans that allow collectors to see the booklets they might be missing–the link goes directly to that archive. The remainder of the site is a mix of View-Master and a personal website.
History & Collecting
Stereo Views: An Illustrated History and Price Guide by John Waldsmith (book)
One of the few print resources for View-Master history and values, this exhaustive guide provides a history and context—as well as a price guide that lists most known reels and approximate values at the time of publication. However, it does not list reel variants. Higher values items are generally rare so this book provides a quick reference for what reels are rare and thus worth the added expense, even if the exact market price is outdated. It also provides a history of the precursor to View-Master, the stereoscope and detailed information on the collectability of stereoscopic photo sets.
View-Master Memories by Mary Ann and Wolfgang Sell and Charley Van Pelt (book)
This is a limited edition book written by the foremost View-Master historians and collectors. This book offers both a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the company from interviews conducted with former employees and detailed information about collecting View-Master products.
The View-Master Homepage (website)
Run by the foremost authorities in View-Master history and collecting–Mary Ann and Wolfgang Sell–this site provides tips for collectors and links to well-established groups dedicated to all things View-Master and 3-D.
The ViewMaster and 3D Stereo Group
This is a members-only group populated with some of the most knowledgeable View-Master collectors in the world. Anyone may join. New members are welcome to search the archive for information that dates back 10 years and to ask questions of members to benefit from the group’s collective wisdom. From collectors selling off their massive collections to questions about the right light bulb to get for a vintage lighted View-Master, the ViewMaster and 3D Stereo Group knows everything a collector needs to know.
The Nation Stereoscopic Association
The NSA is a group dedicated to all things 3-D, with an emphasis on photography. The site includes a long list of links for View-Master enthusiasts. The organization’s annual gathering includes a day of selling and swapping 3-D items with some View-Master collectors in attendance. The annual event is a great chance to scoop up or swap items with other members at great prices.
Where to Buy New & Used
Toys “R” Us
For current mass-produced reels aimed largely at children see the company’s website or individual stores. Stock will vary by location–and many stores are rumored to have discontinued View-Master products due to lagging sales. Other national retailers that often carry new View-Master items are Target and Wal-Mart.
It is one of the only stores online to specialize in View-Master viewers and reels, as well as 3-D paraphernalia in general. They offer new reels and old, as well as viewers, generally in excellent condition. They also offer hard to find, limited-run View-Master sets that are independently produced. Topics tend to focus on design and architecture and include reels, a viewer and a book on a specific architect or designer, such as Frank Lloyd Wright.
It is by far the most popular place for collectors to add to their collections. Ebay generally has dozens of pages of search results offering everything from single reels to large lots, from the common to the completely obscure–even personal reels created by amateur stereo photographers during the product’s heyday. Generally considered the only place to find educational reels produced for the military or medical schools, as well as other older and hard-to-find reels.
My Collection Spreadsheet
Inspired by the Ultimate Reel List, I created a spreadsheet to track my own collection. You can check it out in the linked Google doc.
My 3D Photos
If you have red/blue 3D glasses this link is an archive of my 3D photos, some of which have made it onto my personal View-Master reels. If you want to create your own View-Master-style reels, check out Image3D.com.
What’s it Worth?
View-Master items, by and large, are inexpensive. Of course, if the item is rare, its value goes up exponentially. The best way to find out what your item is worth is to search for it on eBay and check the completed and sold listings in the advanced search functions. Don’t assume anything–the “cool” old bakelite viewers are a dime a dozen because they were produced for decades unless you have the viewer with the focusing feature (the Model D) in which case you might get a nice return on it.
This pathfinder provides information for those interested in learning more about View-Master products and collecting. It should be of interest to new collectors interested in finding more information on this still relatively small community of enthusiasts.
Last updated on 1/13/2018.