Although today considered a toy, View-Master began it's commercial life in 1939 as a home-entertainment medium intended as much for adults as for children.
Invented by William Gruber and marketed by Harold Graves through Edwin and Fred Mayer's photo-finishing, postcard, and greeting card company, Sawyer's, View-Master was a successor to the stereograph viewer popularized in the 19th century by Oliver Wendell Holmes. But View-Master was an improvement over the traditional stereograph; it offered seven stereo views on each reel, compared with the stereograph's one view per card, and provided them in color by using Kodak's (then-) new color transparency film, Kodachrome.
From 1939 to 1950, View-Master reels were sold individually. In the early 1950s, Sawyer's had a sufficient catalog of titles to begin grouping existing single reels into packets according to common subjects (for example, reels 251, 252, & 253 were sold as a Carlsbad Caverns packet).
In 1951 Sawyer's bought out the rival Tru-Vue company, which produced stereo views on 35mm film strips. The takeover eliminated View-Master's chief competitor, but of perhaps greater significance was the acquisition of Tru-Vue's license with Walt Disney Studios. In the mid-1950s Sawyer's exploited this asset to produce popular reels and packets devoted not only to Disney's animated characters but to the newly-opened Disneyland theme park and the studio's live-action feature films and television shows. The relationship between View-Master and Disney has continued uninterrupted to the present day.
By 1957, virtually all new production had been shifted to 3-reel packets and a new numbering system was established, applied to packets rather than to individual reels. The older single reels could be found in packets as late as the middle 1960s, until Sawyer's depleted their inventory. As backstock was eliminated, reels bearing the newer packet taxonomy were manufactured to replace them.
In late 1966 Sawyer's was acquired as a wholly-owned subsidiary by the General Aniline & Film (GAF) Corporation. New packet designs reflected the change in ownership and the number of View-Master packet titles continued to expand, but the GAF era is principally remembered for two developments:
a shift in emphasis in the View-Master catalog from travelogue/scenic subjects to crossover subjects from other entertainment media (movies, television, cartoons, sports) and juvenalia;
the substitution of E6 process film stock for Kodachrome and the use of internegatives in the manufacture of View-Master reels. While E6 film was easier to process it did not provide the saturated, durable color that is Kodachrome's hallmark; new images had a blue-green cast which shifted within a few years to a magenta bias. And while use of an internegative provides more control over exposure than a positive-to-positive transfer process, it constitutes an added generation in image reproduction which inevitably increases grain and decreases contrast.
In 1981 GAF sold View-Master to a group of investors headed by Arnold Thaler, and the company was reconstituted as the View-Master International Group. While this transfer of ownership ensured continuance of the View-Master line, the trend toward entertainment and juvenile titles continued as well. Two major marketing changes were instituted during the VMI period:
VMI replaced the venerable packet with a hanging blisterpack that had space for only three reels, with no booklet or other accompanying material. The last envelope-based packet design is the "V2" variant.
VMI ceased all direct mail-order sales from the home office in Portland. World-Wide Slides, based in Minnesota, was licensed to service the mail-order market.
VMI subsequently acquired the Ideal Toy Company in 1984 and became known as the View-Master Ideal Group; V-M Ideal in turn was purchased by Tyco Toys in 1989.
In March 1997 Tyco, including the View-Master Ideal Group, merged with Mattel Inc. V-M is placed organizationally in Mattel's pre-school division and is now marketed under the Fisher-Price imprint, so collectors likely can expect a continued emphasis on juvenile content for the foreseeable future.
Mattel closed down the Fisher-Price division of View-Master.