Chakka-Chhh: The Hidden History of View-Master

iStock
iStock

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.

Jack Pearce via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

A Florence Thomas diorama of Snow White. Image credit: Internet Archive

 
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.

Enokson via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

 
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.

Additional Sources:
View Master: The Biography of William Gruber

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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