My Childhood Keeps Disappearing

All my cowboy heroes died before the 21st century began. Memories of the Korean and Vietnam wars are the purview of senior citizens. Those, myself included, who remember life before television, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, are witnessing the birth of a new generation who will have no memory of television before high definition. I miss the television antennas on rooftops as I drive or walk down a street. Satellite dishes are not the same.

View-Master Stereo Set Viewer with Light Up attachment with instructions and original box, circa 1950.

View-Master Stereo Set Viewer with Light Up attachment with instructions and original box, circa 1950.

As I stroll through Toys R Us and the toy departments at Target and Wal-Mart, my heart skips a beat when I spot a favorite toy from my childhood or that of my children. Generic games, such as Go to the Head of the Class, Monopoly, Operation, and even Tiddlywinks, survive. Silly Putty and Slinky are still around, although Slinky is now made of plastic instead of steel. Lesney Products, Matchbox’s parent company, turned 62 years old, and 2009 is the BIG FIVE-O for Barbie. Barbie demonstrated her retentive power earlier this year when she scratched the eyes out of her biggest rivals, the Bratz dolls.

The disappearance of childhood memories is one indication a person is growing older. Soda fountains and candy stores vanish. Movies we watched in the theater appear on the Turner Classic Movies channel. The theaters in which the movies were watched no longer exist. The baseball and football sandlot is now home to an apartment complex or shopping mall. Music shifts from Glenn Miller to God knows what.

Perhaps I am more sensitive as a collector/accumulator than most to the disappearance of a collecting category or collectible object. While I can relive my childhood memories through visits to antiques malls, shops and shows, auctions, flea markets, the Internet and my own collection and those of others, I experience a strong sense of sadness and loss whenever a product with which I grew up fades into the sunset.

Early this year, Mattel’s Fisher-Price division announced it was discontinuing the production of scenic View-Master reels. That View-Master as a product survives is good news of sorts. The bad news is that a new generation of youngsters would rather watch the DVD in the back of a parent’s car than scenic reels in a View-Master viewer.

Yellowstone Lake and Old Faithful View-Master Reels, National Park Series. Three View-Master reels with picture tour booklet.

Yellowstone Lake and Old Faithful View-Master Reels, National Park Series. Three View-Master reels with picture tour booklet.

I was not yet born when William Gruber, a Portland, Ore., photographer and organ maker, met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Photo Services, a firm specializing in the production of photographic postcards, postcard albums and greeting cards. Gruber had developed a stereo imaging device using Kodachrome 16-milimeter film. His goal was to create a “modern” stereoscope image.

In 1939, Gruber and Graves formed a partnership and created the View-Master viewer and disks. A View-Master disk consists of fourteen film slides, two pairs of seven. When the two nearly identical views, one is slightly offset from the other, are looked at, the eye—thanks to binocular-depth perception—is tricked into seeing a three-dimensional image.

Sawyer introduced View-Master at the 1939 New York’s World Fair, selling the round Model A viewer and disks (also known as reels) of Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon. During World War II, View-Master produced more than 100,000 viewers and five million-plus reels for use by the U.S. government and military for airplane/ship identification and range estimation.

A View-Master 3-D Reel List from March 1955. This booklet folds out to show all the various View-Master products and a complete list of all View-Master categories, packets & contents, reels and reel numbers.

A View-Master 3-D Reel List from March 1955. This booklet folds out to show all the various View-Master products and a complete list of all View-Master categories, packets & contents, reels and reel numbers.

My first View-Mater memories date back to the late 1940s. I received my Bakelite Model C, one of the most indestructible toys ever made, either as a birthday, Christmas or other holiday present. It was not a time when parents bought toys whenever a child whined.

View-Master produced reels focusing on national parks and scenic attractions through the end of 1950. My favorite was the “Garden of the Gods” located in Colorado Springs, Colo. In1951, Sawyer acquired Tru-Vue, its principal competitor and owner of licensing rights to Walt Disney Studios. View-Master broadened its subject matter to include television, movie and other licensed product in the ensuing five years.

Reels were sold individually in camera/photograph shops and stationery stores. Bob’s Photo on Main Street in Bethlehem, Pa., became my source of supply. The shop was deep and narrow. As you entered the door, a long row of counters occupied the right side. Wooden racks with pockets to hold individual View-Master reels were mounted on the wall behind several of the counters.

Sawyer periodically issued a small booklet that listed available titles. These became my checklists. My goal was to assemble a full numbered set of titles. I was born with the collector gene; it manifested itself early.

A three-reel pack with 21 pictures of View-Master Cartoon Favorites in 3D featuring The Sub-Mariner, made in 1978.

A three-reel pack with 21 pictures of View-Master Cartoon Favorites in 3D featuring The Sub-Mariner, made in 1978.

The reels were numbered. By the time I started to collect, some early numbers had been discontinued or replaced by a new series of images. Bob had the uncanny ability to locate discontinued reels, charging a premium price when he found them. At the time, I paid no attention to packaging variations. My only goal was to complete the numerical sequence.

I collected View-Master reels until the mid-1950s. I purchased the first three-reel packets when they were introduced in the early 1950s. The arrival of the first Hopalong Cassidy single reel was a treasure beyond compare.

I received a View-Master junior projector for Christmas. I subjected family and friends to View-Master slide shows, albeit the shows that I enjoyed most were those that I did for an audience of one. I traveled the United States and the world without leaving my bedroom. I stood on a London corner as Queen Elizabeth waved from her coronation coach.

Even though television arrived in my home in 1949, View-Master reels never lost their source of wonder. My strong, vivid sense of imagination, one of the most essential features of my personality, is partially attributable to View-Master. View-Master reels transported me to places and worlds that I would not have otherwise known. The View-Master slide shows were among my first public speaking performances.

I have dozens of View-Master memories, from acquiring my first plastic storage case for reels to buying the first View-Master viewer for my son, Harry Junior.

Alas, my strongest memory is a negative one. Before acquiring my first plastic storage case, I stored my View-Master slides in an old shoe box. One day as my father was collecting the trash to burn, or so his version of the story goes, he spotted what he assumed was a discarded shoe box and put it into the trash.

When I arrived home, I went searching for my box of View-Master reels. When I could not find them, I asked my parents if they had seen them. “I burned them,” my father replied, showing no remorse and offering no explanation. I immediately ran out back. When I raked through the glowing embers, I found evidence of film and frame fragments. I threw a tantrum. My father ignored me. My mother kept her silence. I think he did it deliberately, but I never knew or understood why. The matter was never discussed once I calmed down. My dad and I were not the best of friends, and I never forgave him for what he did.

I still have my Model C viewer, junior projector, plastic box with a few scenic and packet reels, and a pseudo-leather storage case with a few reels in it. Where they are located in the Vera Cruz school that is now my office is a mystery. I am determined to find them and share them with Sofia, Linda’s and my granddaughter.

View-Master enjoyed worldwide distribution. Harry Zur Kleinsmiede, a Dutchman, is one of the leading scholars on the history of View-Master products. His Web site is stereoscopy.com/3-dbooks. He can be reached via e-mail at harry@uitgeverijakasha.nl or by mail at 3-D Book Productions, Brammershoopstratt 8, 7858 TB Eeservenn, The Netherlands. Kleinsmiede is one of the founders of the Netherlands Society for Stereo Photography and the International Stereoscopic Union.

Do you have a View-Master story you would like to share? Leave a comment below or e-mail Harry directly at harrylrinker@aol.com.

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com

You can listen and participate in “WHATCHA GOT?,” Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on http://www.gcnlive.com on the Genesis Communications Network.

“SELL, KEEP OR TOSS? HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected letters will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5093 Vera Cruz Road, Emmaus, PA 18049. You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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  1. Chris Hughes says:

    Harry,

    I empathize with your father burning your View-Master reels. I too was born with the collecting gene and constantly struggled with my mother to keep my toys. In her never ending quest for “tidiness”, she was constantly trying to get rid of toys I no longer played with. It was an ongoing battle throughout my adolescence.

    I hope someone out there is enjoying my Star Wars dolls…

    —Chris

  2. John says:

    You reopened an old wound with that story…

    I used to go with my dad every autumn to see – and sit in – and smell – the new model year cars. Those were great days! The dealers would have a variety of models and colors on display, and there was always a kind of carnival atmosphere with cookies and drinks and giveaways.

    I always made sure to get the brochures. I loved to look at the pictures, to read the marketing blurbs, and, when I got older, trace the car outlines and “customize” them. I got to the point where I had a sizeable collection, which was kept in a drawer in an old cabinet in the basement.

    Fast forward to the time when I was on my own, but still going to the dealers, still collecting brochures. One day I decided to pick up my old brochures. You know what’s coming, right?

    My mom said something like “Oh, you mean that smelly old stuff in that cabinet downstairs? I threw all that out last week.” “Last week? Mom, why didn’t you ask me if I wanted that stuff? I mean, it WAS mine!” That didn’t help much…