In 1911, Sawyer's Photo Services began operations. In 1918, brothers Fred and Ed Mayer bought into Sawyer's. In 1926, Harold Graves joined Sawyer's and was responsible for Sawyer's producing photographic postcards and album sets as souvenirs. Later, photographic greeting cards sold to major department stores, were added to the products Sawyer's produced.
William Gruber, an organ maker and avid photographer, lived in Portland, Oregon. While on vacation he met Harold Graves of Sawyer's. Both Graves and Gruber had developed devices for viewing stereo images. Gruber had made up a stereo imaging rig out of two Kodak Bantam Specials mounted together on a tripod. He had the idea of updating the old-fashioned stereoscope by using the new Kodachrome 16mm color film that had recently become available. While a View-Master reel holds 14 film slides, there are really only seven stereoscopic images; two film slides are viewed simultaneously - one for each eye - thus simulating binocular depth perception.
Shortly thereafter, in 1939, Gruber and Graves formed a partnership which led to the retail sales of View-Master viewers and reels. The actual patent on the viewing device was issued in 1940, becoming known as the Model A viewer. Within a very short time, the View-Master quickly took over the postcard business at Sawyer's.
In late 1939, the View-Master was introduced at the New York World's Fair (marked "Patent Applied For"). It was intended as an alternative to the scenic postcard, and was originally sold at photography shops, stationery stores and scenic attraction gift shops. The main subjects of View-Master reels were Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon.
In the 1940s, the U.S. military recognized the potential for using View-Master products for personnel training, purchasing 100,000 viewers and nearly six million reels between 1942 and the end of World War II in 1945.
In 1951, Sawyer's purchased Tru-Vue, the main competitor of View-Master. In addition to eliminating their main rival, the takeover also gave Sawyer's Tru-Vue's licensing rights to Walt Disney Studios. Sawyer's capitalized on the opportunity and produced numerous reels featuring Disney characters and the newly opened Disneyland.
In 1952, Sawyer's began its View-Master Personal line, which included a 35 mm camera for its users to make their own View-Master reels. Although at first highly successful, within ten years the line would be discontinued. Despite an untimely death, many of these ruggedly well-made cameras are still being used today. This line also spawned the Model 'D' viewer (available until the early seventies it was View-Master's highest quality viewer) and View-Master's only 3D projector.
In 1955, the Model E was introduced with a more modern design, big ivory buttons on the picture changer levers and a large "V" slot on top for easier reel insertion.
In 1958, the Model F was introduced which used C-cell batteries to power an internal lighting source.
In 1962, the bakelite models were replaced with plastic versions. The first of these being the Model G. This change was driven by Sawyer's new President, Bob Brost who took over in 1959. The View-Master had originally been constructed from Kodak Tenite plastic and then bakelite, a hard, sturdy, somewhat heavy plastic. The material of choice under Brost became the much lighter-weight thermoplastic.
In 1966, Sawyer's was acquired by the General Aniline & Film (GAF) Corporation, and became a wholly owned subsidiary. Under GAF's ownership View-Master reels started to feature fewer scenic and more child-friendly subjects, such as toys and cartoons. Several now-classic TV series were also featured on View-Master reels, such as Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, Star Trek, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Here's Lucy, and The Beverly Hillbillies. Actor Henry Fonda appeared in a series of TV commercials for the GAF View-Master.
In 1976, a red and white View-Master with a blue handle was released to commemorate the United States Bicentennial.
In 1977, GAF switched the film used in View-Masters. GAF had its own line of film and had planned to switch over all View-Master production to it. The film was of poor quality however, and its use meant that images would turn red over time. 1977 has become an important date for collectors of the reels for this reason.
In 1981, GAF sold View-Master to a group headed by Arnold Thaler, head of Ekco Housewares, for $24 million.
In 1984, the Electronic Talking View-Master was introduced.
In 1987, six years later, a thriving View-Master International purchased Ideal Toy Company and became known as View-Master Ideal (VMI).
In the mid-1980s, the toy eventually had a home video label, notable for producing Kidsongs.
In August 1989, the View-Master product line was sold for the third time to Tyco Toys, Inc. of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, upon its purchase of View-Master Ideal. The View-Master line remained part of Tyco until Tyco’s merger with Mattel, Inc. in 1997.
In total, there were about 25 different models of viewers and 1.5 billion reels produced. Despite its long history, many model changes and materials used in production, every reel ever made will work in any model ever produced.
Over the years 3-D reels have been produced for Disneyland, many TV shows, movies (such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park) and even for the US military (for airplane/ship identification and range estimation).
David L. Bassett, an expert on anatomy and dissection, collaborated with Gruber to create a 25-volume atlas of human anatomy using the View-Master system.
In the spoof comedy movie Hot Shots! Part Deux, a character mistakes a View-Master with images of Mount Rushmore for a pair of binoculars while observing a craggy coastline. After watching the Rushmore View-Master reel, the character remarks that "those rocks look treacherous".
In the television show Lilo & Stitch, Agent Pleakly (the specialist on Earth's flora and fauna, including the mosquito) gives one to the Grand Councilwoman and tells her to "Educate herself" about the earth's flora.
In an episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog, a View-Master was used to view the past of a beaver's life.
The comic book character The Tick used a View-Master as though it could alert him of ongoing crimes.
The 2006 film ATL features a scene of a teenage girl using a View-Master. This scene is preceded by a computer generated image of a reel being moved by the same girl.
Among the new View-Master products are a “Discovery Channel View-Master,” the new “Virtual Viewer,” the “Discovery Channel View-Master Projector and Telescope,” and “View-Master 3-D Pocket Viewer,” which feature images of popular performers in concert and backstage.
In September 2008, the Missouri Tigers football program sent out custom black-and-gold View-Masters loaded with 3-D action shots of Heisman Trophy candidate Chase Daniel. The View-Masters were sent to Heisman voters and members of the press. The unique item also received attention from television commentators throughout the 2008 season.