When I was a kid, my mother signed me up for a monthly children’s travel club sponsored by the National Geographic Society. As a member of the club, every 30 days I received a small box in the mail. In each, there was a booklet about a faraway place, along with an artifact that the society deemed to be representative of that particular location’s culture.
One month, I opened my package to find two silkworm eggs from Japan. In another, I got a brass cowbell from India.
I credit this childhood subscription for inspiring, in part, my love for travel. As my family didn’t have the inclination nor the financial means to go on vacations, these exotic items that arrived just for me in the mail gave me a peek into the big, wide and wonderful world that awaited, out there. The fact that I could hold objects from such far-off lands in my hands gave me goose bumps. And to this day, I like to bring a small memento home from my travels, something to set on a bookshelf that will set my mind wandering whenever I look at it or touch it again. Something about the size of that small box that used to arrive, without fail, every month.
What makes a traveler? How do you go about inspiring children to want to go out into the world and explore beyond their own backyards? What ignites that first spark of wanderlust in a youngster?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t the amount of money you spend on traveling that inspires wanderlust—or even the actual “going”—but the wealth of knowledge and ideas about distant places that you instill.
Virtual vacation via View-Master
Anyone who can remember the early 1960s probably recalls having a View-Master. I loved mine. You could pop a cardboard reel into the handheld, plastic device, hold it up to your eyes, depress the lever and be whisked away—picture by picture—to various beautiful spots in the world, all in 3-D.
The View-Master system was actually introduced in 1939, four years after the advent of Kodachrome color film made the use of small, high-quality photographic color images practical. View-Masters were invented by Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Photographic Services in Portland, Oregon. In 1938, Graves went to the Oregon Caves National Monument and met fellow camera buff William Gruber, who was using two cameras strapped together. Gruber explained that he planned to update the stereoscopes commonly used as entertainment in the 19th century by producing three-dimensional color slides and a new viewer.
By the next morning, the two had made a deal to produce View-Master. A reel would hold 14 film transparencies in seven pairs, making up the seven stereoscopic images. The components of each pair are viewed simultaneously, one by each eye, thus simulating binocular depth perception.
Graves and Gruber introduced their creation at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and then began selling it through specialty photography stores. Following the lead of its stereoscope predecessor, the first reels presented tourist-attraction and travel views from around the country. The main subjects of the first View-Master reels were Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon, meant to be interesting to users of all ages. In 1951, however, View-Master acquired its main competitor, filmstrip production company Tru-Vue, and with it the stereo licensing rights to all Disney characters. After that, View-Masters lived predominantly in the realm of children.
In February 2015, the now-iconic View-Master got a 21st-century upgrade. Mattel joined forces with Google to integrate virtual reality software using smartphones with the handheld 3-D photo viewer. And in 2019, Mattel partnered with MGM to announce an upcoming feature film based on the View-Master.
The View-Master was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999. How many of today’s seasoned travelers were first inspired by their View-Masters? We may never know. But chances are that the devices are still, at this moment, galvanizing new generations of travelers.
Suds and slideshows
In a 2008 New York Times article, author Gary Andrew Poole titled a story about his father’s travel slideshows as “A Couple of Beers and 140 Views of Yellowstone.” That pretty much says it all.
Before social media, people would invite family, friends and neighbors over to their homes for slideshows about their travels. Unfortunately—as Gary’s title indicates—very few understood the value of editing. As he writes, “this involved tiny squares placed into an electronic projector to display oversized images as a friendly host droned on … and on … about what was in them.”
The hosts weren’t the only ones to blame, however. The electronic projectors used “slide carousels,” which had slots for 140 slides. Most people felt compelled to fill them all.
But despite the many jokes about long slideshows from hell, they inspired travel dreams. States Gary, “I remember sitting in our basement—the hum of the projector’s fan, the smell of the screen, the darkness cut by my father’s voice talking about this or that rock. By this time, vacation season would be fading into the past, and the air outside would be cool. But up there, on the screen, the excitement of travel remained.”
For some of you, the travel bug may have bitten because of a lighted globe in your bedroom that you gazed at during the long winter nights. Or perhaps the strong desire hit you in a movie theater when you saw a travelogue played before the full-length motion picture began. Today, it might be an Instagram photo or a podcast that sets your thoughts going in a traveling direction.
During this holiday season, I wish you all many happy journeys; but more than that, I hope that you will help ignite a child’s curiosity for the natural world—and that you will nurture that budding nomadic spirit that wants to learn about it.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,