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View-Master and Made in Oregon Nostalgia

As an author and historian who writes almost on exclusively Oregon historical topics, I am obsessed with the state's past. In the course of my research, I have collected Oregon historical artifacts. Some of them have cost a lot of money. All of them have come to dominate my home's decor.

Why is that? Am I nostalgic for something in Oregon's past? What do I seek from owning and displaying these artifacts?

I think a lot about these questions. And recently, after an unlikely re-acquaintance with a unique Oregon historical artifact that provoked a fit of nostalgia, I probed my personal history and an overlooked yet fascinating Oregon story, and tried to understand the connection.

As an Oregon boy, I watched her show alone at least once a day, and usually three times in a row.As an Oregon boy, I watched her show alone at least once a day, and usually three times in a row.

My parents didn't know. Neither did my sister or friends. There I was, secreted away in my bedroom — first in Molalla, then later Oregon City — in the analog days, well before a boy had a large color television or thin computer at his private disposal, sitting on the floor. I would gather up the contraption with my left hand, load the reel into the slot with my right, bring it to my eyes, and point it to the light at the window or overhead. Through the binocular portals I'd see the first image of the show. All I had to do was depress the contraption's lever with a finger and soon I would see the show's star.

Click. The depressed lever rotated the reel forward revealing a new image of the drama. Each reel contained seven images, as well as a sentence or two of Spartan text in the white space between the binocular portals, which meant you had to retreat from the image to read the words.

I think I read the show's text one time.

Another click — the star, the special guest villainess, and then click click click for a better image, and then I would stare at her for minutes, exploring every detail, every contour. She was always an undiscovered body and her legs like one of those maps with monsters at the edges, before Columbus invaded the New World.She was always an undiscovered body and her legs like one of those maps with monsters at the edges, before Columbus invaded the New World.

Click to another image of the star, and then click click click to rotate and repeat. Surely the sound of machine gun fire could be heard beyond my door.

Reel one concluded, I slid in reel two, and clicked away. When it ended I loaded the third and last reel, and too soon the show was over.

But not really. I simply emptied reel three and reloaded reel one, and two clicks later... beheld the nuclear-powered stereographic image of Julie Newmar starring as Catwoman, a weapon of prudish mass destruction, in my bedroom, in my hands, in my eyes, in spectacular 3-D!

And I saw: Black curves behind her black mask. Black leather boots with three-inch black heels. A gold sash draped about her sequined waist. A gold chain dangling between her breasts. Long gold fingernails at the ends of her black silk gloves. Black kitten ears in her brunette mane.

In the summer of 1938, a young German immigrant named William Gruber and his new wife honeymooned at the famous Chateau in the Oregon Caves National Monument. Gruber, an organ maker and piano tuner residing in Portland, was also a serious photographer. He had a fascination for stereographic images, once a commercially popular photographic format in the late nineteenth century (as black and white stereoscopes) but then a novelty mostly of interest to 3-D aficionados.

While at the Chateau, Gruber met another Oregon man, Harold Graves, president of Sawyer's, a postcard publishing company in Portland. Their meeting was sheer coincidence — Graves wasn't on vacation, but had stopped for the day to photograph deer on his way to California on business. And, according to View-Master lore, Gruber walked into Graves' photo set-up and captured his attention by using a strange double camera he'd invented, which took two pictures simultaneously to produce a stereo pair.

The two men began to talk about Gruber's camera. Later that evening in Graves' room, Gruber told Graves of his idea of printing seven color stereo pairs on tiny film transparencies and mounting them side-by-side on a thin reel that a person could watch and rotate manually on an inexpensive, handheld, binocular viewer. In 1939, Sawyer's View-Master: "Three Dimension Color Pictures" debuted at the World's Fair in New York City.

Seventy years and an estimated billion reels later, View-Master is still in business, now owned by Fisher-Price. Its original concept of seven pairs of stereographic images affixed to a reel and viewed by a binocular viewer has essentially gone unchanged. A reel purchased in 1939 will work with a viewer made in 2009 and vice versa. The only object remotely comparable in American culture, as analog television signals end in June 2009, is that someone using a rotary telephone can still make a call to a cell phone and vice versa.

The fight against fascism played a pivotal role in my discovery of View-Master, as its sales received a critical boost during World War II when the War Department contracted the company to produce viewers and reels to train servicemen to identify ships and airplanes. The portable handheld viewer displaying 3-D color images was perfectly suited for such a purpose and the government partnership meant View-Master was ensured a steady supply of film stock, which was then becoming increasingly scarce, and had the orders to refine its laborious production methods.

In 1951 View-Master expanded substantially. First, Sawyer's built a new manufacturing plant near Beaverton, Oregon (where, for the next thirty-five years, most of the world's players and reels were produced) and acquired its only competitor, Tru-Vue of Rock Island, Illinois. The Tru-Vue purchase included the rights to license Disney characters, which became even more lucrative when Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California in 1955.

In this era, View-Master stopped producing one-reel programs and began offering titles exclusively as three-reel packets. The content also expanded as the company released more children's material in addition to its staple of scenic travelogues.

Nineteen sixty-two represented the pinnacle of View-master artistic achievementNineteen sixty-two represented the pinnacle of View-master artistic achievement when Gruber, in collaboration with a University of Washington Professor of Anatomy named David Bassett, produced the monumental twenty-five volume "Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy," which included fifteen hundred stereo pairs offering medical students unprecedented views of the human body without having to dissect a cadaver.

General Aniline and Film Corporation (GAF) bought Sawyer's in 1966, ending View-Master's Oregon-based ownership forever. (Gruber died in 1967 and had his ashes spread on Mt. Hood. In 1998 health officials learned that former employees of the View-Master plant in Beaverton may have been exposed to dangerous levels of trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic byproduct of View-Master's manufacturing process that was dumped on site and found its way into the local water table. Litigation is ongoing.)

Almost immediately, GAF moved aggressively to market View-Master as a children's toy and began producing reels from hit television and popular Saturday morning kids' shows.

In 1968, my father, a minister in the Church of Christ, signed the family on for Operation 68, a two-year mission to Belo Horizante, Brazil. The unfortunately named Operation 68 originated at Camp Yamhill, located in the Willamette Valley, after youthful campers issued a zealous challenge to the adults to do something constructive in the larger world as America was coming apart at the seams.

We couldn't take much with us on our sea voyage to Brazil, but my mother did bring along two View-master players — one for me and my older sister — and a lot of reel packets.We couldn't take much with us on our sea voyage to Brazil, but my mother did bring along two View-master players — one for me and my older sister — and a lot of reel packets. "Batman: The Purr-fect Crime" serial, released in 1966 as a companion to the campy television series starring a stiff Adam West as Batman, was one of the titles.

If I recall correctly, my Batman serial was essentially my only connection to American poplar culture, as we had no radio, television or movies. My mother brought along a few other secular titles, but the vast majority of View-Master reels at my disposal in Brazil and after our return to Molalla, Oregon in 1970, were Biblical in nature.

As I search my mind today, and consider how well I know my Old and New Testament stories, I must rank View-Master as my greatest Bible teacher, with my father's sermons a close second, and Sunday school a distant third. In particular, I remember the three-reel packets "Miracles of Jesus" (water into wine!), "Parables of Jesus" (Good Samaritan), and the "Teachings of Jesus" (Prodigal Son), where I undoubtedly formed my impression of Jesus as blonde haired, blue eyed, and vaguely counterculture hero who fed the poor, healed the sick and lame and didn't judge anyone, lest ye be judged.

All of this inexplicably came back to me when I was driving one day, thinking about Oregon. The memory of Julie Newmar as Catwoman simply exploded into my consciousness and I immediately called my mother and asked her about Brazil and View-Master. I also asked if by some miracle she'd held onto the viewers and reels. It's been nearly forty years and nearly a dozen moves since the missionary days.

Two days later a package arrived from my mother. I ripped it open and the reels spilled out on the counter. Also inside, tucked in more securely, were two viewers. Freeing them both from tissue paper, I instantly recognized mine. I picked it up, and after a nearly thirty-five year absence, two old Oregon friends were reunited.

Then I inspected the reels. No Catwoman! Where had you gone, Julie Newmar? No matter. It took less than a minute to locate a coveted View-Master title online and I ordered it for twenty bucks.

While I waited for Catwoman to arrive, I brushed up on my Jesus, Daniel in the Lion's Den, Noah's Ark, and Samson and Delilah (she wasn't hot). As I looked through the binocular portals, and the stereo images of the various Biblical characters, some clay, some actors, on the cheesiest of sets, I felt an extraordinary intimacy with these stories that television, video games or even a book could never replicate. The world isn't flat, you know.

Finally, my order appeared. I loaded up reel one... click click... Purrrrrfect. A digitized, big-breasted Lara Croft as the Tomb Raider could never compare to a celluloid 3-D Julie Newmar as the Catwoman. It wasn't even close, but the Oregon boys growing up would never know. Their lust would just have to originate somewhere else, most likely in digitized and boring two-dimension. And for that, I truly pitied them.

So am I lost in nostalgia for the era when View-Master was enough for children?So am I lost in nostalgia for the era when View-Master was enough for children? Enough for me? No. If we do not investigate comparisons between the past and the present, and evaluate the similarities and differences, we really don't know where we are headed as a culture. The best and most important comparison I see going on today is with our food. Many of us here in Oregon are returning to the reality of a previous era when American food tasted a lot differently — better, healthier. We want to taste a real tomato again. If that constitutes nostalgia, then nostalgia is a good thing. It can teach.

Food. Our relationship to nature. Sports. Transportation. All these areas are worth investigating, comparing practices from different era, as is, I believe, aspects of our popular culture.

I know as a high school English and history teacher, I encourage (require) my students to investigate and sample popular culture from bygone eras. And yes, they will hold my View-Master viewers in their hands and look at the reels. I'll even break out Catwoman.

The new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, went on to become one the highest-grossing motion pictures of all time. Is there a better time to compare that violent, garish, and loud spectacle with my Batman experience? I suspect we're going to have a very important conversation.

÷ ÷ ÷

Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Sometimes a Great Movie: Paul...
    New Trade Paper $30.00

  2. Grasping Wastrels vs Beaches Forever...
    Used Trade Paper $9.95

  3. Of Walking in Rain
    New Trade Paper $20.00

Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain

2 Responses to "View-Master and Made in Oregon Nostalgia"

    The Master Viewer April 1st, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Yay! I want my View-Master back from childhood right now. Anybody got a time machine?

    Dalia Miller July 24th, 2009 at 2:12 am

    View-Master was indeed an international product not only an Oregonian one. But what is the point of writing about Oregon and View-Master when you picture a View-Master viewer made in Belgium. A little more research would be welcome. Come to and take a trip down memory lane with lots of products and pictures. You may even see a View-Master viewer from Oregon.

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