Chakka-Chhh: The Hidden History of View-Master
Had it not been for the FBI informant working at Chase Bank, William Gruber might have been able to enjoy his success.
It was 1939, and the German immigrant’s chance meeting with an employee of Sawyer’s postcard company in Portland, Oregon had recently netted an important business deal: Sawyer’s was interested in mass-producing Gruber’s View-Master, a portable stereo photography viewer that used a separate image for each eye to create a 3D effect. Held up to a light source, the reels created an immersive still picture.
There was just one stumbling block: The lenses for the viewer were proving hard to source. Eager to help, Gruber recommended Sawyer’s use a German optical firm, which could produce the number needed at a reasonable 7.5 cents per lens. But by the time the deal was completed, trade embargoes had made doing business with Germany impossible. The firm refunded payment directly to Gruber, who then cut a check to Sawyer’s.
A German-born citizen being sent funds from Nazi-occupied Germany raised a flag at Chase; the FBI was notified by their informant at the branch, and Gruber was cornered for an explanation.
He had one. It was legitimate. But there was also no denying that Gruber was a Nazi sympathizer who had voiced his support of Hitler ever since he had arrived in Portland in 1924. Shortly after the View-Master debuted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Gruber was remanded to Idaho, where his assets were frozen and he faced charges of espionage. It was not a pretty picture.
Stereoscopes, using pictures cards known as stereographs, had been a popular parlor entertainment since the 19th century, when the 3D viewers were set up in common rooms. Growing up in Munich in the early 1900s, Gruber was fascinated with the devices and with photography in general.
It was a nice hobby, but hardly a proper career; Gruber’s family expected him to follow in his father’s trade as a blacksmith.
The food rationing that came as a result of the first World War dampened those plans. Malnourished, Gruber didn’t possess the physical strength to perform that kind of manual labor. Instead, he became a piano tuner, and moved to Oregon in 1924 to pursue American citizenship and explore his photography in a more scenic environment.
The relocation didn’t dilute his feelings about the Nazi party. Having joined in 1921, Gruber continued to believe Adolf Hitler could unite a divided Germany. Pro-German groups in Portland counted him among their members; he espoused pro-Hitler views to customers while tuning their pianos. It’s unlikely Gruber had any idea how his vocal support put him on the FBI’s radar.
In 1938, Gruber married a Portland native, Norma, and the two went on a honeymoon to a lodge near the Oregon Caves. While toting around his dual-camera tripod to snap stereoscopic images, Gruber ran into another photographer, Harold Graves, who had been dispatched to take photos of deer for Sawyer’s.
Graves was intrigued by the curious set-up; Gruber explained how he planned on a viewer that could display 3D images in color, preferably for educational purposes. In addition to national parks and famous cities, the slides could provide identification of plants and animals; a wheel of images could be rotated with a manual lever.
Intrigued, Graves believed the images could act as a postcard alternative, sold in photo and gift shops as souvenirs. Gruber, who had long wished to strike gold with one business idea or another—he once wanted to grow mushrooms for a living—agreed to license the idea to Sawyer’s. The plan was to have the View-Master ready for a 1939 debut at the World’s Fair.
Gruber’s suggestion to source the lenses from Germany would have unintended consequences. With a money trail seemingly incriminating him and witnesses who could testify about his opinion of Hitler, he was a prime target for J. Edgar Hoover's crackdown on subversives. While awaiting trial, the government banished Gruber to Idaho, where he kept up a written correspondence with Sawyer’s employees in an attempt to oversee the development of the viewer—and, occasionally, was granted permission to return to Oregon to solve production problems.
While it seems odd the government would want to indulge a self-admitted Nazi during wartime, they had good reason. In a roundabout way, Gruber was working for them.
While View-Master got a welcome reception from the general public in 1940, the rationing of film and paper made it an expendable product. Sawyer’s feared that it would never regain that momentum. But in a reversal of fortune, the U.S. military saw an opportunity: The View-Master was a perfect vehicle to show soldiers slides of aircraft and ammunition for easy identification. At virtually the same time Gruber was in potato-country exile, the armed forces purchased more than 10,000 View-Masters and 6 million reels. (Amid the educational slides, a few risqué pin-up images of Bettie Page found their way into circulation.)
It was word-of-mouth advertising Sawyer’s could never have dreamed of buying. All the GIs who were impressed by View-Master while deployed came home and told their families about it. Instead of packing the household in a car for a trip, they could spend $1 for a viewer with seven slides that transported them anywhere they wanted to go. View-Master was an album of vacation photos that didn’t require a vacation.
By this point, Gruber had returned to Portland and to his normal life. Despite his Nazi advocacy, a federal judge had found that he was not a spy or working for German forces and ordered that his case be dropped.
It was a dark chapter in the device’s history, but it wouldn’t be the worst.
Gruber, who returned to his photography work by training his lens on mushrooms and other eclectic science subjects, never intended View-Master to be a toy. To him, it was like a pair of binoculars that could peer deeply into images with amazing clarity and detail. Coin and stamp collectors could keep a library of samples; rare birds could be photographed and studied for distinctive traits.
But Sawyer’s also took note of how much appeal View-Master held for children. Beginning in 1944, the company hired a sculptor, Florence Thomas, to craft customized scenes from fairy tales and children’s stories that could be placed in a diorama and photographed. Thomas produced a series of images from A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, and the Bible. The reels were popular sellers and essentially doubled View-Master’s demographic.
In 1951, Sawyer’s purchased Tru-Vue, a competing stereoscopic viewer. While it was nice to eliminate the competition, Tru-Vue offered something even more valuable: a transferable license to Walt Disney’s character library.
Almost overnight, View-Master had access to images of Disney television series like Davy Crockett and movies like Bambi. At a time when color television was scarce and there was no such thing as a home video market, a child being able to revisit familiar characters—in Kodachrome color—was a big deal. The adventures of Donald Duck quickly eclipsed mushroom catalogs, though there was always an appetite for human subjects: the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II sold 1.5 million reels in just nine months.
While View-Master wound up changing hands several times over the years—Sawyer’s was acquired by General Aniline Film Corporation in 1966 before eventually winding up in the hands of Tyco in 1989—Gruber never had much to do with corporate maneuverings. His passion remained photography. Following his encounter with the government, he embarked on the most ambitious project of his life.
After returning to Portland, Gruber struck up a friendship with Dr. David Bassett, who was then teaching at the University of Washington before moving on to Stanford. With Bassett’s assistance, Gruber wanted to use the potent visual stimulus of the View-Master to record the human anatomy in exacting detail.
The project, A Stereoscopic Atlas of the Human Anatomy, used dissected cadaver tissue to highlight intricate maps of nerves, muscle, and tendons. Bassett and Gruber sliced open brains and spinal cords, logging an unprecedented tour of the body.
It was probably best Gruber was busy elsewhere. It would take decades, but the View-Master plant in Beaverton that had opened in 1951 was found to have concentrations of the degreaser trichloroethylene (TCE) more than 320 times the legal limit, much of it seeping into the well water that employees drank. Several fell ill; many self-reported diagnoses of cancer. It was closed permanently in 2001.
Of View-Master’s lesser scandal, Gruber made a fair pass at redeeming himself. When the extent of Hitler’s homicidal tendencies were revealed, Gruber realized he had been mistaken about the Führer’s leadership qualities and he no longer made his politics public business. Work on the Atlas consumed the remaining 14 years of his life until his death in 1965.
While View-Master is probably best known for its licensed entertainment properties in the 1970s and 1980s, its most lasting contribution may have come from a rehabilitated Nazi sympathizer. To this day, the Atlas and its 1500 images are considered to be one of the finest dissection projects ever captured on film.
View Master: The Biography of William Gruber