Sunday, May 18, 2008


I have a bunch of these View-Master reels at home. They date from around 1948, through the 1950s when my mother collected them, to some from the 1960s and 1970s that my siblings and I bought and received, and a few more that I bought a few years ago. They fall into such categories as funnies/comics/nursery rhymes/folk tales and the like, cowboys and indians (a 50s thing, I guess), and world tour (places around the world). I think the idea was to provide a fake memory of world travel so you could save money by not going, but the designers hadn't developed scratch-n-sniff in time for this, so without the olfactory input, the illusion is incomplete. Had they been able to provide not only a 3D view of, say, an Istanbul market, but also include a scratch-n-sniff portion of the disc that would present the appropriate scent to your nose in the binocular viewer's nose-place and mechanically scratch it for you as you advanced the reel, they might have beaten that newfangled TV thing.

It's hard to believe that if a 10-year-old started buying these in 1948, they'd be 70 now, nearly as old as John McCain. I just mention that to emphasize what an ancient technology this is. But although it is ancient, it is still around and hasn't changed much. And although I keep a sharp eye peeled (ouch) for the imminent arrival of low-cost stereoscopic (or stereo, binocular, whatever you want to call it) 3D digital cameras for consumer use, they continue to fail to appear on the market. Most of the 3D cameras on the market are semi-antiques from the 1950s.

The existence of these reels provides a good excuse to mess with the film-scanning feature on my Epson GT-9700F scanner. Hmmm. "Flatbed" would be a good prompt. If the subject responds with "truck" or "mattress" you know they are not a computer(-literate) person. Here is the front of the reel folder, printed in an ancient font.

They came outta Portland. I need a camel's-hair brush. (Punctuationists will note the contrast with Camel's Hair-brush.) Pictures taken with your own personal stereo camera make wonderful additions to your View-Master reel library. Rub it in, why dontcha? I wish I could. I can't see the word "Kodachrome" without hearing the Simon and Garfunkel song of the same name, btw.

I don't remember this reel of Japan making much of an impression at the time. It's interesting that the postcard-like views haven't changed much. "Boats in Tokyo canal, Cana" seems to be a mis-print.

I lightened the disc above enough to read the front faintly.
This scan below has been lightened just in the center portion.

I do remember being impressed by the Navaho, for some reason.

Even more impressive was the story of Little Black Sambo. I remember being transfixed by the discovery that fast-running tigers looped around a tree could be transformed into a nutritious, spreadable fat compound called "Tiger Butter". How I longed to eat the famous "Tiger Butter Pancakes." I think they probably did serve me some, since my grandfather was always in the mood for a good mind-f prank.

Is Little Black Sambo racist? It may be, but I am providing it here for its value as a cultural artifact. I don't really see anything racist in the story except for the name itself, which seems to unnecessarily call undue attention to Sambo's blackness. His skin tone should be evident enough already. I don't recall reading "The White Boy Who Cried 'Wolf'" or that "Little Red Riding Hood" was actually "Little Native American Girl in a Hoodie". So I guess it's racist on that level. It's also possible that they just called people by their color in a straightforward way as in Brazil, or the modern American use of "Black" i.e. without necessarily being racist. (Black Uhuru…?) Anyway. I am much more concerned about "Popeye" on the Cartoon Network. The Popeye program shows children that black people always have a bone through their noses, and collectively attempt to cook Popeye or his romantic interest "Olive Oyl" in a large black pot. I don't think this is what we should be showing pre-schoolers in 2008, and I have to change the channel and would never want my kids or any other kids see it. They also have insulting stereotypes of Native Americans on Popeye. I don't remember seeing insulting Asian stereotypes but it's probably an oversight on my part.

Of course, all of the View-Master literary adaptations suffered somewhat from being reduced to seven stereo photos with about 5 to 8 words of description under each one. Think of it as a haiku (actually closer to tanka) or short-short-story version, a cultural expression of mid-20th-century America. Or an early attempt at a DVD, with text instead of audio. It did have the advantage of being three-dimensional!

Click on any of these for a larger version. It has been formatted to fit your screen.

Speaking of smell, they smell alot like old super-8 film. Hopefully that is not explosive.
Later discs ("reels") are no longer from Sawyer's, Inc. out of Portland 7, Oregon, but belong to Fisher-Price out of New York. VIEW-MASTER is a trademark of Mattel, it seems.


norma jean said...

I'm glad that I stumbled onto your blog, really interesting 'racial' insight. I wish I hadn't sold my viewmaster at a garage sale in '72.

Thanks for an insightful read.
norma jean summers

Blues Tea-Cha said...

Thanks for your comments, Ms Summers. The view-master technology lives on, somehow, altho the older reels were the best. This post gets a lot of visits.

Incidentally, very soon after posting it I realized a better way of scanning the reels, which is to scan a reel once as a normal scan and once more, without moving it, with the backlight on for scanning slides and film. Then it is trivial to combine the two scans to get the lightness of the image pairs and the lightness of the printed portion of the reel in a single image.

The package says "PICTURES TAKEN WITH YOUR OWN PERSONAL STEREO CAMERA MAKE WONDERFUL ADDITIONS TO YOUR VIEW-MASTER REEL LIBRARY" but even though digital cameras are inexpensive and stereoscopic photography has been around 150 years, the breakthru of the new generation of stereo-photos has been slow to come. Perhaps with the new 3D TVs, something will soon explode on the 3D cameras front. I hope so. 3Ddigicams will then lead to 3D home movies. A good product to give a company the edge in a slow economy, I would think.

Anonymous said...

I have been using stereo cameras since the early 70's most of them are from the late 40's to the early 70's I own a few view master format cameras, made in USA, Germany, Ukraine, they are a blast to use, of curse you need the punch or cutter to get the "chips" of film to be inserted on blank reels, as of today you can buy new blank reels from the only way of buying these cameras today is on the big auction website every one knows, hope this will make some people to think about doing it. David H.