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View-Master meets its beastmaster

March 18, 2009


Earlier this month, Fisher-Price announced that they were discontinuing the View-Master, although it seems they will continue to make a few reels with ‘popular cartoon characters’, despite the fact that as much as the View-Master evokes some hard-core nostalgia, I can’t see any reason but nostalgia itself that they’ve been produced for as long as they have. I was more surprised to learn of their continued existence than of their impending demise. And yet few objects fill me with the kind of burning, pining retro-coveting like the View-Master.

I like the View-Master for the same inexplicable reason that one thing I want more than anything else in the world is a Victorian stereoscope (and maybe a pile of racy/bawdy picture cards to go with it), even though it’s hardly a technological wonder, and even though my ridiculously bad eyesight makes my binocular vision into a cruel joke (I can’t actually see the images as 3-D). I like it because it’s a piece of clumsy technology, needlessly unwieldy and serving a frivolous purpose. And probably you look a bit awkward using one, and somewhat more ridiculous than modern. The generally accepted wisdom is that the stereoscope went out of use because people started going to the movies, but it seems a bit of a stretch. As a form of entertainment, it was pretty damn different from the Saturday double-feature, and more likely it seems that rather than die, after a dip in popularity, the stereoscope was simply reinvented in Bakelite (later plastic) for the modern culture hound.

The View-Master was unveiled at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, originally intended as entertainment for adults, a sort of retro-futurist doohickey: this is not your father’s stereoscope. It used Kodachrome film, contained colour images, and their binocular technology (in other words, both your high-tech, high-spec, human eyes in your human head), they made images stand out in 3-D. The first View-Masters mostly contained tourist photos of popular attractions, but they were also used in armed forces training, as marketing tools, and for educational purposes. Edsel used it as part of their marketing strategy, outlined in here (see pp 43-44), where you can see other effusive commentary on the use of modern technology to sell cars (although we are talking about the Edsel).

They were also used in anatomy lessons. In the early 1960s, David Bassett, an expert in anatomy and dissection, used View-Master technology to create a ‘Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy’, which went out of print by the end of the decade, but which has recently been resurrected. The technology has also been useful for those who suffer from persistent alien abduction.

Something more than kitsch value has to keep something alive when it has obviously been superseded by so many more advanced technologies that even as they continue to be produced, they seem to be a thing of the past. They look as if they are the pinnacle of some dead-end branch of futurism, the Neanderthal of technology: not stupid, just extinct. It seems a bit odd to me that Fisher-Price is discontinuing all but a few reels of cartoon characters when it’s fairly obvious that the most lucrative market is among people in their 30s and 40s, who grew up in the heyday of the View-Master and are now reaching middle age, reaching back into childhood for anything that will make them/us feel closer to birth than to death. Of course if you give one to a 4-year old, he or she isn’t gonna pick it over a DVD in the back of a minivan headrest. The problem is that like with most things in the nostalgia industry, the connection and the appreciation come with the process of discovery, the thrill of coming across these things by accident. The first Charlie’s Angels lunchbox was exciting. The wall of them in Urban Outfitters is just a bit sad. But the National Stereoscopic Association still holds an annual conference, and I’m not sure how to feel about the 3-D bikini magazine.

They’re already collected, so they won’t even go through that period of obsolescence before resurfacing as antiques. They are less relevant than the Polaroid in terms of their utility to the average person, so while I’m not surprised that the Polaroid film factory has been bought by former employees and will be reopened as a going concern (yay!), that makes me happy because Polaroids still do something that digital cameras cannot, and it’s not just provide flatteringly low-resolution shots that don’t show the bags under my eyes. Or, okay, that could be it. For neither object can you use digital technology to reproduce material qualities, although you might be able to simulate the types of images they create, and I don’t go much in for mourning over the demise of an object type that has become obsolete. If it were not largely obsolete, it would not be in demise.

Until recently, the company tried to promote its line of custom views, which maybe didn’t catch on as much as it needed to. But one thing that modern tech companies have rarely repeated (but should) is that all View-Master reels are compatible with all View-Master machines, ever; more like CDs than computer games. Most of us of a certain age grew up with the Disney characters, the tourist images, and the occasional educational reel, sometimes with a talking soundtrack or accompanying book. We miss them like we miss our childhood: it’s nice to visit but is neither healthy nor realistic to keep it on life support or to try to resurrect it. I’d like to know, not why the View-Master is being phased out, but how it lived so long in the first place?

Postscript: I don’t know how to include this in a way that seems anything less than insensitive, but I also came across this, which is another way that the View-Master encapsulates what it meant to live in 20th century America. Boo.

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