This piece is taken from Classic Camera Magazine
number 29 (with a few minor changes), and is provided to try to demonstrate
the style of the magazine. Note that the magazine article is illustrated,
but in order to keep download times to a minimum, I have omitted the illustrations
from this version.
All back issues of Classic Camera Magazine are available;
see the main Classic Camera Magazine page for
Sawyers have put their name to other items, but
they are surely most famous for the 3-D system known as Viewmaster. A
notched disc contains fourteen small pictures spaced evenly around
the circumference. When placed in a viewer, these are magically
transformed into seven 3-D images of people and places, telling
stories or documenting life.
It all started in 1914 when Sawyers was set up by
Carleton Sawyer and associates in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. The
company pro-vided photo-finishing services to a small chain of
American drugstores. In 1919 it was bought by investors who felt the
company could do more, and the business was expanded to provide
similar services for more drugstores covering the Pacific Northwest
In 1938, Sawyers president was called Harold
Graves. He visited the Oregon Caves where he noticed a man using two
Kodak Bantam Specials. This man was William Gruber, the inventor of
Viewmaster. Graves liked the idea and later in 1938, the first
Viewmaster viewer and discs came onto the market with the Sawyers
name. The first production viewer is round, with a hinge at the
bottom. To insert a reel, the whole viewer is opened and the
reel located on a central spindle (hence the hole in the middle of
the discs!). The first souvenir View-master commemorated the World's
Fair in 1939. Early discs are very much dominated by views of the
A more streamlined version of the hinged viewer came
out in 1944 and this was followed by the first top-loading viewer in
1946, which also saw the first of the fairy-tale reels (pictures - Little
Red Riding Hood and Hansel
and Gretel). The post-war years saw the range of reels expand to
include views from other countries, including England, and two small
books were published with Viewmaster reels as illustrations. These were
called "Succulent Plants" and "Alpine Wild Flowers of the Western U.S.A.".
A bible story series was started, using live actors instead of table-top
models or cartoons.
In 1951 Sawyers purchased Tru-Vue. This gave them
a Disney licence, and Disney reels soon followed. In addition, reels
featuring other famous cartoon characters, like Bugs Bunny and Woody
Woodpecker were released. T.V. personalities like Roy Rogers provided
the basis for another series of reels; others featured include Rin
Tin Tin and Gene Autry. Documentaries were attempted, using subjects
like an aircraft carrier and a farm, showing daily life and routine.
In June 1952 the Viewmaster Personal Stereo Camera
was launched. This would allow Viewmaster enthusiasts to create
their own Viewmaster reels. The camera featured a lens shift, to
maximise use of film. The film went through the camera in one
direction, the lenses were shifted and the film went through the
camera in the other direction exposing the second strip of film. In
this way 37 stereo pairs could be taken on a 20-exposure 35 mm. film.
This camera was made in brown and beige; a black version has an
accessory flash. The camera ceased production in about 1955.
In 1953, it became possible to project reels and
preserve the 3-D effect, as the Stereo-Matic 500 projector was
For some time, viewers had required an external light
source, either from a convenient window or light bulb, or from the vertically-styled
light attachment which clips onto the back of the 1946 viewer. The model
D viewer was introduced in 1956, and is an illuminated, focussing viewer,
which is very much heavier than the simple models. In 1956 the Model
E viewer (picture)
came out; a brown plastic model which accepts the horizontally styled
light attachment; this was later superseded by the beige plastic model
"G" (picture). Sometime
in the fifties, a new viewer was introduced with built-in illumination,
designated the Model F.
At the 1960 Photokina, the European camera, the
Viewmaster Mark 2 Stereo Camera, was introduced with an expected
price of about £29. This was made by King (manufacturers of the
Regula range of cameras) and has Rodenstock Trinar f/2.8 20 mm.
lenses and four speed flash synchronised shutter. A diagonal film
path permits stereo pairs to be taken on one pass of the film with
minimal film wastage. A 36-exposure film accomodates 75 stereo pairs
and a 20-exposure film gives 40 pairs.
In 1967 the company was bought by GAF who, for
some reason, failed to maintain interest among the buying public. One
of the items marketed by GAF was a new illuminated viewer, the model
H. Both this and the model D could be operated from the mains, using
a GAF transformer. Among the last actions of GAF was the Talking
Viewmaster, a viewing system based on the old Viewmaster but with the
addition of a small acoustic gramophone with a record attached to the
disc at the centre. The Talking Viewmaster viewer has a simple sound
system, whereby the record is played through a cheap plastic
loudspeaker. Two viewers were made, one in red and white, which was
supplied with a sample reel, and one in beige which was supplied in a
plastic storage drum with six reels. This cost about £10. For
some reason the system never really took off &endash; I suspect
because it was not marketed well, as many people have no knowledge of
GAF also released what is, in my opinion, one of the worst
sets of reels I have ever seen -; the set for the Wedding of Prince
Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Viewmaster had not been allocated a
position in the Cathedral to take pictures, so to give a 3-D effect
a normal picture has been given a surround and caption; the caption
in a different plane from the picture. The overall effect is cheap and
quite dis-orientating to view. The reels were sold as a gift set with
a purple viewer.
Tyco bought the company from GAF and they are re-releasing
some of the old favourites (like Thunderbirds) and selling new ones
(like Beauty and the Beast).
The latest reels have no centre hole but instead carry
a picture in the centre. There has been another attempt to bring out
a talking system, this time using some sort of micro-chip.
In the course of Viewmaster development, several
simple projectors were made. None of these give stereo projection
facilities, and they are difficult to date as they were not
advertised in this country in photographic magazines (or, indeed, any
other magazines that I can find!) and most Viewmaster literature
seems to be undated. Models which I have identified are:-
Junior -; plastic and metal construction with f/3 lens and
30 w. bulb; cost in 1957, £7 10s.
S-1 -; available around 1951, for use in home, classroom or
for public shows. Also projector case available for the S-1.
Senior -; metal construction with f/3 lens and 75 w. bulb.
Built-in screen pointer.
Standard -; 30 w. lamp; cost c.1965 £5 19s. 6d.
Deluxe -; f/2.8 21ž4 in. focusing lens, 100 w. lamp, on/off
switch and carrying handle; cost c.1965 £11 7s.
Deluxe 300 -; f/2.8 21ž4 in. focusing lens, 300 w. bulb, fan-cooled.
Entertainer -; blue plastic body, 30 w. bulb.
411 -; f/2.8 55 mm. three-element focusing lens, 100 w. lamp,
marketed by GAF.
511 (Diplomat) -; As 411, but uses 12 v. 50 w. halogen lamp.
Original selling prices are also hard to find, as
many Viewmaster leaflets refer potential customers to their
photographic dealer for such information.
A 1957 leaflet gives the following
Viewer £1 9s.; Horizontal light attachment
£1 9s.; 3-reel packet 15s.; individual reels 5s.; Library
box, to hold a viewer and 100 reels £1 2s. 6d.; album, to hold
30 reels 14s. 6d.
A later leaflet, undated but which I know dates
from the mid-sixties (as it came with my first viewer, bought new
from Woolworths!) gives the following information:
Model G viewer 14s. 6d.; Model F viewer £1
12s. 6d.; Model D viewer £5; Transformer £1; Library box
(smaller than 1951 type) 19s. 11d.; album, to hold 30 reels 14s. 6d.
with leatherette cover and box or 7s. 6d. with "gay cardboard cover";
Junior projector £4 19s.; Standard projector £5 19s. 6d.;
Deluxe projector £11 7s.; Stereomatic 500 projector £115,
including case, lamp and two pairs of polarising glasses; polarising
glasses, per pair 7s. 6d.; Stereo camera £33 14s.; e.r.c. for
camera £3 4s. 3d.; film cutter £6 3s.; packet of six blank
Most of the projectors are common, and fairly
low-priced; it is worth waiting to find a really nice example in a
box if you wish to collect them. They are generally smaller than most
cine and slide projectors. The exception, in both price and size, in
the Stereo-Matic 500 which is very hard to find and very expensive
(hardly surprising, considering the very high original purchase
The viewers are similarly low-priced and easy to
find, except the earliest viewers which were not sold in this
country. Again, it is worth getting nice boxed examples for a
collection, although I like to have one or two less pristine examples
The cameras are fairly hard to find and therefore
fairly expensive. In this country, the Mark 2 (European model) is
more common than the original camera. It is important, if you want to
try to use the camera and mount your pictures, to buy a camera with a
cutter. It is very difficult to mount Viewmaster pictures without a
cutter/mounting jig (I have spoken to people who have
Reel prices vary considerably, depending on the
subject matter. Modern cartoons are generally the cheapest, along
with the topographical subjects and non-TV related stories,
especially the bible stories. Documentary reels are slightly more
collectible; those concerned with transport are the most desirable of
the documentary reels. The highest prices are commanded by the
original sets of TV favourites such as Thunderbirds, Star Trek, Dr
Who and Blakes 7, all of which are collected by Viewmaster collectors
and TV science fiction collectors (a large number of people). Reels
in good condition and original packets command the highest prices.
Reel packaging varies, from the simple blue envelopes of the single
reels to the more elaborate three-reel sets. Early sets have a
descriptive booklet and three reels, each in an individual envelope.
Later sets dropped the individual envelopes and later still the small
packet became a large, flat folder containing three reels and very
short description. The most recent three-reel sets are on blister
packs and a few single reel blister packs also exist (I have one,
called Parrots). Talking Viewmaster reels appear to have been sold in
sets of three only, packed in a flat box with descriptive booklet.
These are not common and command a comparatively high price, as do
the Talking Viewmaster viewers.
The Viewmaster system is one of the most imaginative of toys,
educational, endlessly fascinating and with plenty of appeal to adults
- all I need now is a camera, a cutter, a Stereo-Matic 500 projector,
a few pairs of polarising glasses . . .
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