A modern version of a stereoscope (a device first invented in the 1800s, it was used to look at early photos in 3D), this particular model was marketed to post World War II baby boomers, and their parents, as a way to see the wonders of the world without ever leaving home.
And, in the years before the phrase “educational toy” existed, it was that as well.
Like millions of other 1950s households, we had a View-Master.
Dark brown and made of Bakelite, the device was lightweight; resembled a Brownie camera, and was nearly impossible to break. Clicking its single lever down with my thumb, I spent many afternoons peering at the dozens of View-Master “reels” (actually, cardboard discs inserted into the top of the viewer, one at a time, which then rotated with each click) in our collection.
Each disc had a set of 14 slides, all in life-like 3D. The colors were also spectacular because each picture had been shot with Kodachrome. Sometimes a disc told a story from beginning to end, like a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. More often, they were touristy images of exciting and exotic places—Natural Habitats of Africa; The Oregon Caves, and Garden Isle of Hawaii.
I recently discovered our View-Master in my garage. There were also 35 reels, most with a date of 1955, and each one was still carefully tucked in its own blue and white envelope. Everything was manufactured by Sawyer’s of Portland, Oregon, whose owners introduced their creation at the 1939 World Fair in New York City, and patented the device that year.
I’d forgotten that I’d found the same box before, in another garage at another house. I wasn’t ready to give it up then. This toy had been an important part of my childhood: it gave me the fuel that let me dream about corners of the world that I knew our family could never afford to see in person.
I’ve done a good bit of traveling since my little girl self sat in a cramped living room, enthralled with our View-Master.
Journeys have included crisscrossing the country as a professional circus clown, which included driving to every gig in my Datsun 710 sedan. In the rear seat directly behind me were my costumes, makeup and props. Next to me, the front passenger seat had been torn out to make room for a long plywood board and air mattress. In this way, the car doubled as my bed, and after I made curtains for the windows, it wasn’t half bad.
There have been other far-flung escapades. I can still recall strolling down the greenest of hills in Switzerland, right next to cows wearing leather collars with bells on them, clanging with every step they took. I’ve seen old-fashioned windmills turning in The Netherlands, and gazed up at Mount Fuji in Japan. I brought my tiny baby girl home from China, and spent time in the former Republic of Georgia making a documentary film. This past February, I went to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, one of the most beautiful bodies of water on the planet.
Each of these adventures has given me a perspective on the world that has helped shape me into the curious and questioning reporter that I am today.
But now, it’s time to pack up the View-Master and the reels.
They’ll be in good hands, going to a friend on the East Coast who collects vintage toys. As it turns out, he hasn’t been to nearly as many places as I’ve been lucky enough to see.
But maybe the View-Master will change that.