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“I called it first!”
“No chance, birdbrain! You were first last time. It’s my turn!”
Living in a family of seven meant never being bored. But it also meant bickering over who would get the hearts and gizzards, the cherries in the fruit cocktail, or the last piece of lemon meringue pie. Which two lucky siblings would be chosen to lick the beaters or wrap their pinky fingers around the turkey wishbone and make a wish? My poor deprived mother probably went twenty years before sampling a maraschino cherry from the Del Monte fruit cocktail can.
We were a middle class suburban family, but having to spread the wealth among seven members certainly enabled the squabbling. Perhaps if we could have afforded a roomy station wagon we would not have bickered over who rated the front passenger seat when Mother stayed home or who would be subjected to sitting over the hump in the middle of the back seat.
Now, our bathroom issues would have baffled Harry Houdini. How do you get five siblings to school or work with only one bathroom? I remember well my high school mornings. The success of our elaborate system rested first and foremost on the shoulders of my brother Eddie, who was first up around 6:00 a.m. for work. Next was Shirley, who also needed to prepare for work. I was third in line. The problem was that Eddie could sleep through a monster truck rally. Forget naming him for the ice bucket challenge. If you tried waking him up with a bucketful of ice, it would suspend his snoring for a fraction of a second, and then the cacophony would just take up where it left off. Regrettably, even a ten-minute deviation from our carefully orchestrated plan sent panic down the ranks like a domino display gone awry.
Living in a family of seven also meant not having the money for elaborate vacations. Multiply cost of gas, airfare, hotel, food, admissions, and miscellaneous by seven, and any thought of a standard vacation was out the door like the Fuller Brush man. No Niagara Falls, no east coast beaches, and certainly no Disneyland in California.
We did appreciate, however, the small trips that our parents could manage. One summer we stayed for a week at our cousins’ cabin in Tidioute, a forested area in northwestern Pennsylvania. Here we see Billy’s big catch from the Allegheny River. And one week we went camping at Crooked Creek State Park with aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Many Sundays in summer, weather permitting, we packed up the picnic and swimming gear and went off to a different state park, sometimes venturing into Ohio or Maryland. Pictured to the left are Billy, Sandy, and Karen goofing off at a Pennsylvania state park. The list of parks visited was long. To some, they may seem like mundane get-aways, but to us they were and always will be special.
Yet my View-Master told me that there was more. It was one of my first introductions to the world outside of Southwestern Pennsylvania. When quite young, I didn’t have access to many geography or travel books, and there wasn’t much on the subject on TV at the time unless Tarzan’s African jungle counts.
What is a View-Master? If you are a Baby Boomer, there is no need to ask. Many Generation Xers are familiar with the device as well. As defined by Wikipedia, “The View-Master is the trademark name of a line of special-format stereoscopes and corresponding View-Master ‘reels,’ which are thin cardboard disks containing seven stereoscopic 3-D pairs of small color photographs on film.”
Here is one of my own View-Master reels, “People Around the World,” copyright 1950-1957.
First put on the market in 1938, the View-Master was originally intended as an educational toy. It may surprise you Boomers to learn who else used the device before it became a favorite in children’s entertainment. For a more extensive history of the View-Master plus photos of viewers, reels, and accompanying booklets, read more at 20th Century Stereo Viewers.
The View-Master has remained relatively unchanged through the years. Place a reel in the slot, aim the device at a light source, push the lever down, and a beautiful three dimensional photo will greet you.
This cartoon of Droopy shooting slo-mo bullets illustrates how a photo looks when you peer through the viewer.
I can remember using our View-Masters when I was as young as five years old. Here is a photo of our two Model E viewers, produced between 1955 and 1961. They were made of a product called Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic, sought after by collectors today.
The fact that I kept my View-Masters for nearly sixty years demonstrates how much I cherished them. I viewed those reels over and over and over again as a child and, as an adult, I occasionally took them out of a dresser drawer and wistfully viewed them over the years. I shared them with my own children. And now, I take my View-Masters to various venues when I present my book The Crab Hollow Chronicles and my program on the 1950’s and 1960’s. They are part of my memorabilia collection that fills five full tables. When my grandchildren come for Christmas, I just may introduce them to my old View-Masters, starting with “Scenes of Nature.”
Some of the first View-Master reels contained photos of America’s nature scenes. The earliest reels that I owned were entitled “Scenic Wonders.” I viewed and admired them so often that I could still visualize them years later. There were Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, and Yosemite Falls, among others—in three dimension! I lived vicariously through those scenes on my beloved View-Master—scenes that I was sure I would never encounter in my lifetime.
Well, guess what? Thanks to hard work, dedication, ambition, a college education, and wise decisions, I was blessed with the wherewithal to experience some of those scenic wonders first-hand as an adult. Little Karen, you did get to witness these breathtaking scenes that you once thought were nothing more than fairy tale locales or landscapes in my dreams:
My husband Frank and I took this photo of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River from a ten-passenger plane in June 2000.
My husband Frank, my son Frank, and I visited “Old Faithful Geyser of California” in June 2001. My son is the the man in the orange t-shirt in the background. A real geyser! Who would have thought? (Having a husband and children was a childhood dream as well.)
Back around 1955, I laid eyes on the Yosemite Falls for the first time through my View-Master. Who knew that I would be there in person to snap my own photo nearly fifty years later? My son and I hiked up switchback after switchback and beyond through Yosemite Falls Trail, stopping to take a photo of him in front of the Yosemite Valley.
Now, if my children and grandchildren did not live across the country, I would have visited many other “scenic wonders” and historical sites by now. Taking advantage of every opportunity to see our precious grandchildren, we usually spend our free time in San Jose and Houston.
Back to the View-Masters: I still have the reels “Beautiful North America,” “Wonders of Nature,” “Pikes Peak Colorado,” and “People of Other Lands.” I have reels that tell stories, such as “The Three Little Pigs,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and “Lassie and Timmy in The Runaway Mule.”
The reels were used so many times that the covers came apart and were eventually thrown away. Reels were lost or broken so that, in some cases, I have only one of the set of three.
But I do still have some complete sets in the original package, such as this Disneyland Fantasyland one.
I’ve never been to Disneyland in California, but I did make it to Disney World in Florida. It took until my honeymoon at 23 years old to get there, but I did it.
My husband and I took our son Frank and daughter Leslie to Disney World three times when they were younger. This photo was taken in 1986, the year Disney celebrated its 15th anniversary. Every 15th guest received a light-up visor at the turnstile. Look closely and see who won! Leslie was so proud of that visor. We still have it!
I also have these sets. Though worn, they are still intact.
The Lone Ranger was one of my favorite TV shows in the 1950’s, as it was with most kids, and I thoroughly enjoyed helping the Lone Ranger and Tonto fight truth and justice in 3-D on my View-Master!
My life carried on through View-Master Models F, G, H, J, and K, and the year that my first child was born, 1977, Model L was produced. You may not be surprised to hear that I bought View-Masters for my two children back in the early 1980’s.
Here are Frank and Leslie’s Model L View-Masters. These plastic models are noticeably lighter in weight than the old Bakelite models.
Cartoon packets were popular in the 1980’s. We still have “Smurfette,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Tweety and Sylvester,” “Fangface,” and “E.T.” My kids were not as enamored with the View-Master as I was, but they used it enough to lose two Frangface reels, and the Smurfette cover was so beaten up that it had to be thrown away.
Believe it or not, in spite of computers, video game consoles, iPhones, and a myriad of other electronic devices and toys, View-Masters are still sold today. Not surprisingly, they’ve got their share of bells and whistles, such as Model M with a push-button viewer and Model N with a battery-operated lighted viewer. The very latest models would be unimaginable back in 1955. There is one that transforms into binoculars and another with sound effects and dialogue to accompany each photo. There are even “Face” viewers, such as Casper, Batman, and Mickey Mouse (from 1989).
Hey, if you are now longing for your old View-Master that Mom threw away when you were glued to the TV watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, not to worry. There are plenty for sale on e-Bay from the first vintage viewers to the new Horizontal Reel Fisher Price Virtual View-Master. If you’re like me, you’d love to pick up that Roy Rogers packet or perhaps “The Grand Tour of Asia” or “Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear.” If you’ve a mind to stay in the 21st century, pick up some packets for your grandchildren. How about “Hello Kitty” or “The Amazing Spider-Man?”
So, continue reading below about my book, The Crab Hollow Chronicles, maybe buy a copy 🙂, and then switch over to e-Bay and start bidding on that timeless classic View-Master!
Karen Gennari is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.