Sunday, November 15, 2015

Generations of the View-Master

There's something about this time of year...when the morning chill makes its way through the turning colors of the leaves, and as we turn to our Charlie Brown and Rankin Bass holiday specials, a certain nostalgia rises up within us. This is the time of the year where find ourselves making holiday shopping lists for remakes of retro toys we once had as Gen X kids or pulling down our own retro toys from our shelves for the kids in our lives who come to visit us.

In 1976, it was the Bicentennial of America, and everything around us from the pot holders in our harvest gold kitchens to the fire hydrants on the streets became red, white, and blue.  The View Master model that year was also one of those things....

This was the most beloved toy of my early childhood.  When I would lift the lenses to my eyes, it created a certain magic.  The sun would send its slanted rays onto the shag carpet of my bedroom and I could lose myself in another world as I pulled the reels out of its round canister.  I would lose all sense of time and a whole afternoon would disappear in moments.

This is the time of the year when the most epic stories usually make their way to the movie screens in theaters and in our homes - when we are more likely to be indoors, when we are more likely to look inward, or to take a moment to look back.  The beauty of storytelling always seems to come alive around the holidays.

When the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, the kids of Generation X kept on using our Bicentennial View Masters to view the new pop culture that came at us in a new decade.


The stories to go along with the images were neatly folded inside the View-Master envelopes and there was nothing more fun than pulling these out for the first time when you got a new View-Master.  It was a lot like getting a new record, a new cassette tape, or a new CD, and pulling the sleeve out to read the lyrics.

The stories that we remember from our View Masters include characters from every TV show, movie, or cartoon we knew.  This included Snoopy, Herbie, Holly Hobbie, E.T., Star Wars, Adventures of G.I. Joe, Looney Toons and Disney characters, Captain Kangaroo, and more obscure stories like Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.

Of course, Benji made his way into our View Master reels - especially since he had already made his way into our hearts.

I have 3D images forever imprinted in my mind of my old Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.

Just about any character we remember from the pop culture of our youth probably found their way to these reels.

Even our superheroes would come alive for us in all their dimensional glory....

Some of the images of View Master reels over the decades of the 20th Century were photos, some were in cartoon form, and some in claymation form.  Some were of historical events like the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth.

There was nothing I loved more as a small child than seeing the world in 3D - how I first experienced the sites of America was through my View Master reels.  I could feast my eyes on the Golden Gate Bridge hanging gracefully over the San Francisco Bay, the surreal vastness of the Grand Canyon, the stalactites hanging from the ceilings of Carlsbad Caverns, and the palm trees leaning over the Atlantic lapping up onto the Florida Coast.

The larger world became real to me through images, like the tulips of Holland or the pyramids of Egypt.   It was national parks and travel destinations that were the original images on View Master reels from the 1940s....

Since moving to my new Northern California neighborhood a year and a half ago where the tree lines on the horizon don't become red or gold until late fall, I have become friends with a sweet neighbor who is from the Silent Generation, and she has been here since the neighborhood was built in the mid 1970s.  This is where she raised her Generation X children, stayed home with them when most moms didn't do this, and even kept her family together in a time when families often didn't stay together. She knows the value of story, and of history, and has kept many of the retro things of multiple generations safely tucked away in her home.  She has kindly shared many of these things with me - to keep in my Gen X retro writing nook, or to take pictures of, or to hold in my hands for a moment and remember. One of these things is her collection of View Masters and reels.

The first View Masters were sold at the 1939-1940 World's Fair in New York soon after Kodachrome color film was invented.  Some of the pieces of my friend's collection date back to the era of her early childhood - the 1940s. I remember looking at some of these as a child, when friends of mine had gotten these as hand-me-downs from grandparents.

The plastic View Masters I had once held in my hand as a child had been grandfathered by the original metal ones.

During WWII,  the US government commissioned millions of View Master reels from the Sawyer's Co. in Portland to train serviceman how to recognize planes and ships from a distance and for range estimation.

Stories from the View Masters of the 1940s included classic fairy tales, national parks, and celebrity cowboys of the time like Gene Autry.

C.S. Lewis said that some day we become old enough to read fairy tales again.  He also said that we should read books from different eras than the one in which we find ourselves - this is because each era (and generation) is good at seeing certain truths, and liable to make certain mistakes.  What I did not know as a child is that when I was learning many of these stories, I was looking back to the 3D images of a decade that was far before my time, and in the case of fairy tales, these images were bringing alive stories that were written in the centuries before my time.

Over time, there have been almost 30 viewer models in every color you can think of, each representing the era it came from. There have been hundreds of different themes for the reels, though the View Master itself has remained basically the same so that any reel made from any decade can be used in any View Master.

When we are long gone, if our civilization is buried in rubble, what will they unearth of our old belongings?  How will the history books sum up the 20th and 21st centuries in which we straddled with the timeline of our lives?  They will see that we took the stories of the centuries before us and turned them into 3D images, that we took black and white and turned it into color, and that we escorted an analog world into a digital one.

What I know is that the Silent Generation and Generation X had something in common - our stories often faded under the sound of the louder voices of other generations of our time, and that is why, while there is still time, we should tell those stories.  What I know is that every generation has a story to pass on to the next one.  When we look at time and generations and the stories that formed us, we begin to see how much the narrative of all of our lives intrinsically connects us.  When I would look at my View Master as a child,  I would look at the enormity of the trees of the Redwood Forest reaching toward the blue California sky or the depths of how far the waterfalls of Niagara Falls were plunging into the water below.  I was looking at these images with all those who had the same reels, and even with those who had actually once stood in those places. We are truly are connected, and for all the differences that exist among generations and cultures, we have more in common than we usually realize.  From the tulips of Holland to the pyramids of Egypt, nothing we do connects us more than storytelling, nothing connects us more to others than telling our own story, and to listening to the stories of others.


Thank you, Louise, for letting me borrow these symbols of time, to photograph them, and to see 3D images again that I had not seen in decades.  Sending you love for the extraordinary person you are, for the history you have been a part of, and for the beautiful story you have lived.  


Thinking today of the red, white, and blue of the French flag, of the 3D reels we once looked at of the Eiffel Tower, and of the way that suffering and tragedy brings humanity together in the narrative of the human experience. 

(c) 2015 writing and photography by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved