Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Viewmaster

How many of my readers know what a Viewmaster is? Well, here is a picture. You put the slides (the wheel-shaped things) into the top of the Viewmaster, hold it up to the light, and look at the pictures contained in them. Each of the dark rectangles on the wheels is another picture.

Someone gave me a Viewmaster for my birthday a good few years ago. I was delighted by the gift. As regular readers might now, I love anything which you can look through, which creates a distinctive view or atmosphere, which provides a window of some sort. I love the cinema. I love kaleidoscopes. I love projector slides. I loved coloured glass and photographs taken through a monochrome lens of some kind. I love decorated pub mirrors, reflective Christmas baubles, and so forth.
On a more figurative level, I love listening to peoples' memories and stories, which are a window onto their past and lives.

Guess who expressed this particular fascination better than anyone else, for my money? That's right, it was our old friend G.K. Chesterton. Chapter two of his Autobiography is entitled "The Man with the Golden Key", and the very opening passage takes up this theme:
The very first thing I can ever remember seeing with my own eyes was a young man walking across a bridge. He had a curly moustache and an attitude of confidence verging on swagger. He carried in his hand a disproportionately large key of a shining yellow metal and wore a large golden or gilded crown. The bridge he was crossing sprang on the one side from the edge of a highly perilous mountain chasm, the peaks of the range rising fantastically in the distance; and at the other end it joined the upper part of the tower of an almost excessively castellated castle. In the castle tower there was one window, out of which a young lady was looking. I cannot remember in the least what she looked like; but I will do battle with anyone who denies her superlative good looks.

To those who may object that such a scene is rare in the home life of house-agents living immediately to the north of Kensington High Street, in the later seventies of the last century, I shall be compelled to admit, not that the scene was unreal, but that I saw it through a window more wonderful than the window in the tower; through the proscenium of a toy theatre constructed by my father; and that (if I am really to be pestered about such irrelevant details) the young man in the crown was about six inches high and proved on investigation to be made of cardboard. But it is strictly true to say that I saw him before I can remember seeing anybody else; and that, so far as my memory is concerned, this was the sight on which my eyes first opened in this world. And the scene has to me a sort of aboriginal authenticity impossible to describe; something at the back of all my thoughts; like the very back-scene of the theatre of things....All the rest is gone; scenes, subject, story, characters; but that one scene glows in my memory like a glimpse of some incredible paradise; and, for all I know, I shall still remember it when all other memory is gone out of my mind. 

Apart from the fact of it being my first memory, I have several reasons for putting it first. I am no psychologist, thank God; but if psychologists are still saying what ordinary sane people have always said--that early impressions count considerably in life--I recognise a sort of symbol of all that I happen to like in imagery and ideas. All my life I have loved edges; and the boundary-line that brings one thing sharply against another. All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.

As for Chesterton, so for me. I don't remember any formative experience which gave me a love of "frames and limits", but I think I've always had it; and precisely because "the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window".

This love influences my entire worldview. It reinforces my Catholicism (the "frame and limit" in this case being dogma). It influences my nationalism (the frames and limits in this case being borders, particularism, and so forth). It influences my taste in literature (the frames and limits being rhyme, metre, and other conventions). And of course, it influences my social conservatism (the "frames and limits" of gender, tradition, custom, etc. etc.)

So you can understand why I like Viewmaster. Having said all that, these days I don't look at my Viewmaster for months or maybe even years at a time. The screen has become fairly scratched and dirty. I tried to clean it but it seems to be damage or corrosion of the material itself.

The original Viewmaster came with scenes of Oregon and American national monuments. I bought some extra sets of slides on my own-- I thought about becoming a collector, but I couldn't really justify the expense. I bought sets of slides showing scenes of Norway, famous people from the nineteen-twenties (or thereabouts), the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the Christmas story.

The Christmas story is by far my favourite. It's unique amongst the sets I have, because the photographs are all of clay model tableaux. They're pretty artistic, but at the same time, quite endearingly crude. Here, for instance, is the Annunciation.

My favourite slide, though, is the three kings following the star.

One of the things I like about the Viewmaster is how crummy it is. There's really not much to it. Although many of the slides have an interesting 3D effect (which I'm not sure how to describe), many of them are scenes so unremarkable, nobody would give them a second look in real life. Only the fact that you are looking at them through the Viewmaster makes them in any way special. I like the contemplative atmosphere this engenders.

(And the crumminess is only relative, anyway. I've used a virtual reality headset. It's amazing, but the novelty fades quiet quickly.)

Viewmaster is deliciously private. Only one person can see the slides at at time, and nobody can see what you're seeing by looking at you. That fascinates me.

I like the way the slides glow when you hold them against a source of light.

I like the sound of the Viewmaster clicking when you press the tab for a new slide.

I like how simple it is. The technology (if you can even call it technology) has remained the same over decades,. Sadly, there is now virtual reality Viewmasters-- yuk!

Viewmaster isn't that great. Ten minutes playing with one will satisfy anyone over the age of seven, probably. And then you will lay it aside for a long time, unless you are a collector or an enthusiast of some kind.

But it is pleasantly quirky, and worth a post. 

(By the way, isn't 'proscenium' a lovely word? It means the space in front of the theatre stage, the so-called "fourth wall". Chesterton never hesitated to use rare or technical words, without explanation.)


  1. Séamus (Australia)July 10, 2017 at 4:21 AM

    Were the Christmas scenes from St Martin dePorres' crib? (They look very similar )
    I can remember viewmasters being all the rage but I never actually owned one. When I was at St Peter's-Phibsboro, one was brought into school once. The owner wasn't the most likable boy, what we would've called a 'get' in the language of the time. He made quite a show of owning the thing without actually letting us see too many images. I think he very graciously showed me one, it was Dracula's dead body with a wooden stake stuck into his neck (thanks for the privilege bro!)

    1. Sorry, this comment got overlooked for a while. I don't remember Viewmasters ever being all the rage. But I do like the sound of that Dracula slide. (Still, the neck? What bad form! Every vampire hunter knows you go for the heart.)

    2. I don't know if they're from St. Martin de Porres crib-- in fact, I've never heard of this crib.

    3. Well I've just looked it up... And as of last Christmas it was still going and admission was still free. So, come November anyone who's interested had better make their way to 42 Parnell sq

  2. similar contraptions are making a comeback, moving versions. mostly for people who are lonely and ageing and susceptible to dementia good to keep minds alert. an acquaintance , a religious in an old fashioned community, not Ireland, is currently looking after a deaf and mentally deteriorating mother. he's not allowed t.v. in his religious community and is now forced to listen to it full blast as she needs the simulation. and as he has to shop forv her he's finding it hard not to respond to ads for mars, coke etc

    1. Is this a sort of "virtual reality" viewmaster? I've read about them. Don't like the sound of them at all.

  3. I've never heard of these, but I can see why they receive praise on this blog. In fact this is a post so utterly characteristic of this blog it made me feel slightly dizzy reading it and seeing the pictures! (I don't mean that in a facetious way and I hope it doesn't sound so). It's an odd mixture, this Viewmaster - particularly the Christmas slides - between the commercially mass-produced and the roughly-home-made. 'Endearingly crude' is the phrase.

    1. No, I know what you mean! Honestly, I had no deeper meaning in my mind when I started writing about Viewmasters, but soon I found myself linking together so many other preoccupations of mine that I thought: "Oh, that makes more sense now"!

      I only have a few sets of slides, so I can't really generalize about the character of most slides. I guess the quaintness is much of what appeals to me about them. I get the impression the Christmas Story is rather atypical.