By JULIE ROBINSON ROBARDS
---- — It was the best toy ever!” exclaimed Rona Mansfield, inn keeper at Whiteface Chalet in Wilmington.
“I got it for Christmas in 1962, and I used to spend hours just sitting on my bedroom floor looking at all those wonderful places. I spent almost as much time looking at the order form, trying to decide what I would get next,” she said with a laugh.
Mansfield’s favorite toy — along with millions of other kids in the 1950s and ‘60s — was a Sawyer’s View-Master, a stereoscopic marvel that presented the wonders of the world in vibrant color. Her viewer, with its built-in backlighting mechanism, provided hours of solitary entertainment — every parent’s dream after the hustle and bustle of a busy holiday season.
Sawyer’s View-Master made its debut at the 1939 World’s Fair, just four years after Kodachrome color film was introduced. The 3-D viewer and the round photographic discs that went with it were the creation of two Portland, Ore., men: William Gruber, a scenic photographer; and Harold Graves, the president of Portland Sawyer’s Inc., a picture-postcard and film-developing company.
Their partnership began when Gruber and Graves met by happenstance; both were on vacation at the Oregon Caves National Monument in Josephine, Ore. Upon discovering their common interest in scenic photography, souvenir pictures and postcards, they joined forces to create one of the most marvelous toys of the 20th century.
The concept of the stereoscope was first discovered in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, an English scientist and inventor who used mirrors with identical drawings to create the illusion of pictures with dimension. Many others also experimented with the idea, but it wasn’t until the advent of photography that the handheld stereoscope became a success.
In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous writer and physician, created a handheld instrument consisting of two separate lenses encased in a viewing mechanism that allowed the eyes to focus individually on a double-image stereo card. The result was 3-D imagery, and the rest is history.
The stereoscope became a popular Victorian pastime, and nearly every home had one. Some were humble, handheld wooden stereoscopes, and others were fancy tabletop models lined with velvet and inlaid with mother of pearl. Nevertheless, in every home, the stereoscope offered an enlightening visual doorway into the scenic wonders of the world — foreign nations; people of many cultures; and exotic flora, fauna, animal and bird life.
After the turn of the 20th century, there were great advancements in photography, and in 1927, safety film was invented. This opened a new door of opportunity for stereoscopic exploration. In 1931, the Tru-Vue company was formed in Rock Island, Ill., to manufacture stereoscopic film strips. The Tru-Vue viewer was art deco in styling and molded in durable modern Bakelite plastic. It was a small, handheld gadget that had open slots on either side for sliding film strips through. Tru-Vue subjects were based on scenic wonders, travel, children’s stories and current events. Tru-Vue also held exclusive rights to reproduce Disney characters on its film strips.
It was after the introduction of Kodachrome color film in 1935 that Gruber began to experiment on improving stereoscopic photography. He began by rigging up a special camera that could take two simultaneous photographs of the same subject (in actuality it was a tripod mounted with two Kodak Bantam Special cameras that were loaded with the new Kodachrome color film). Once the film was developed, seven sets of pictures were mounted in a circular cardboard disk that rotated in the newly designed viewer. It was a great success.
When Sawyer’s introduced its View Master at the World’s Fair, it appealed to people of all ages. Reel subjects ranged from national parks and monuments to almost every state. Foreign countries, religious themes, Bible stories, fairy tales, animal and circus acts, film stars and cartoon characters were all featured on the reels. The latter subjects made them incredibly popular with children.
Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole on Whiteface Mountain was the first theme park to be featured by Sawyer’s on its reels. Introduced in 1951 (the same year Sawyer’s bought out Tru-Vue), and again in 1956, Santa’s Workshop was a hit.
Pearl Maicus of AuSable Forks, grandmother of Features Editor Rachael Osborne, was a gnome working at Santa’s Workshop in those days. She, along with several other local women, including Barbara Mulvey, a potter who worked in one of the demonstration shops, was photographed for the View-Master Vacationland series in 1955. Maicus can be seen in several photographs with the glassblower, reindeer, children and other gnomes and elves, but the best picture of all is the one that was chosen for the cover photo of the reel packet. The image shows Maicus with gnome Mary Reiss, the daughter of theme-park founder Julian Reiss, and Santa and his reindeer at the North Pole. The reels are nostalgic and plentiful. They can be found on eBay and other Internet sites for $10 to $15.
Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her website www.celluloidforever.co.