Idealistic. Authoritarian. Dated. Simplistic. Propagandistic. Such were many of the short educational filmstrips shown across the U.S. from the 1950s through the early 1970s, some to grade school children, others to junior or senior high school students.
Often, an undercurrent of humor combines with a serious but friendly tone and a sober purpose. The films’ puppets, cartoon characters, peers in the viewers’ age groups, or experts teach their captive audiences about a wide range of subjects.
Today, these films offer nostalgic glimpses at the perspectives, social conventions, values, and politics of bygone days, while sharing two points: by today’s standards, they seem a bit hokey, and they’re all in the public domain.
Related: 10 Family Films Banned For Stupid Reasons
10 “Beginning Responsibility: Lunchroom Manners”
As its title implies, this 1959 Coronet Films venture teaches young schoolchildren cafeteria etiquette. Unlike most other educational films aimed at young audiences, this one employs a puppet as its instructor.
Mr. Bungle teaches the students, by example, what not to do in the lunchroom. He doesn’t wash his hands or comb his hair before lunch, jumps to the head of the lunchroom line, knocks “everything over,” and is impolite. The children in the film conclude that they do not “want to be like Mr. Bundle,” who has no friends, and find that they enjoy lunch more than they would have, had Mr. Bungle sat at their table.
9 “Duck and Cover”
In this 1951 Archer Productions film, sponsored by the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration, a turtle named Bert, wearing a helmet, happily strolls through a forest, sniffing a flower. When a monkey in a tree lowers a lit explosive on a string, Bert flings himself onto the ground, covers his head with his hands, and withdraws into his shell. The device explodes, splitting the trunk and snapping off branches. The monkey vanishes, a casualty, perhaps, of its own foolish prank, but Bert survives, safe and sound, inside his shell.
As people practice Bert’s survival technique in various situations and settings, the narrator reassures his audience that if they “duck and cover like Bert, [they] will be much safer.” However, the filmstrip also warns them that everyone, everywhere, must be ready at all times “to save [themselves] if the atomic bomb ever explodes” nearby.
The idea that ducking and covering could save children from the blast effects of an atomic bomb has been ridiculed, but this was the only safeguard the Civil Defense Administration offered American citizens during the early Cold War years.
8 “Make Mine Freedom”
A 1948 John Sutherland production, this filmstrip, produced by Harding College, contrasts the perils of communism and the blessings of capitalism. Cartoon characters enact disputes between labor, management, politicians, and farmers before a snake oil salesman, hawking bottles of “ISM,” assures a gathering crowd that his product can “cure any ailments of the body politic.” The cure is free for those willing to sign away their own possessions and freedoms and those of their children and grandchildren.
John Q. Public interrupts, reviewing what Americans’ admittedly imperfect “system of free enterprise” has accomplished. After Joe invents a horseless carriage, his family and friends pitch in to finance his invention, becoming “capitalists” whose funds enable Joe to purchase “tools and property” and to hire “skilled labor.” Because of the mutual cooperation of these parties, Joe’s invention leads to the founding of the automobile industry, which creates millions of new jobs. Joe’s experience is repeated “thousands of times” across the nation and creates many other benefits, enriching American lives.
In contrast to this blissful image of capitalism and its rewards, the film shows a tyrannical blue giant, the embodiment of communism, outlawing labor unions and seizing farms and equipment while repeating the mantra, “Everything is fine.”
After sampling a taste of ISM, none of the salesman’s potential customers want anything to do with the product. John Q. Public tells viewers that “anyone who preaches disunity, tries to pit us against the other through class warfare, race hatred, or religious intolerance… seeks to rob us of our freedom.”
7 “Why Play Leapfrog?”
Another John Sutherland production, produced by Harding College, this filmstrip offers a lesson about supply and demand and their effect on inflation. As a rolled dollar bill and a price tag alternately jump over one another, the narrator observes, “Prices and wages often play leapfrog,” resulting in the steady rising of “our cost of living.”
A cartoon dramatizes this lesson as Joe, a doll factory worker, learns why sales prices rise. Raw materials cost little, but taxes and the labor costs for the production, transportation, manufacturing, and selling of “a finished product” are expensive, constituting as much as eighty-five cents of the pre-tax selling price. The solution to wage-price leapfrogging, Joe learns, is “increased productivity,” which enables “wages to keep ahead of prices.”
6 “What about Prejudice?”
In this Centron Corporation film, high school student Bruce Jones, subjected to the prejudice of his peers and viewed as unintelligent and unemployable, is considered someone to be avoided. Because of his “background,” he’s seen as the instigator of a fight between him and Ed, a boy popular with the other students. Bruce is also incorrectly suspected of theft. When he doesn’t go to a dance, those in attendance appreciate his absence.
After he risks his life rescuing a couple trapped in a car and suffers severe burns when the gas tank explodes, most of his schoolmates come to realize that Bruce is not the villain they’ve made him out to be. While waiting to see him at the hospital, the other students grapple with their consciences, facing the fact that they’ve been unfair to Bruce and need to change their behavior. The film ends with a rhetorical question, asking viewers to decide for themselves the cause of prejudice, suggesting, as possibilities, “a lack of understanding,” parental influence, and peer pressure.
In this 1946 Encyclopedia Britannica political science filmstrip, democracy and despotism are seen as polar opposites of one another. No particular form of government is able, by itself, to protect a nation against tyranny, the film says, but experts agree that two sets of scales indicate whether a nation is despotic or may become despotic.
The respect-power scale suggests that despotism exists if few people are accorded respect or are permitted to exercise power in making decisions that affect their lives and their nation’s society.
The economic distribution-information scales suggest that despotism is likely to occur in the future when a smaller middle class exists, a greater loss of small farm ownership occurs, an increased nationwide control of employment and commercial opportunities occurs, the poor are taxed more than other income classes, the press and other media are controlled by only a few, government and commercial censorship occurs, and there is a focus on authoritative instruction.
4 “Are You Popular?”
It seems that Coronet Instructional Films even took an interest in promoting students’ dating popularity. This 1947 filmstrip presents high school boys’ assessments of popular new girl Carolyn Ames. Her well-groomed appearance is one of the qualities they like. They also appreciate her sociability and the fact that she is scandal-free. Gregarious, she shows an interest in other people’s pursuits and is willing to assist them, and she includes others in the conversations of which she is a part. Wally, the boy she dates, is considerate of her and includes her in making their dating plans.
Their qualities contrast with Jerry Brown’s asking a girl for a date at the last minute and with Jenny’s seeking popularity by “dating all the boys” and “parking in cars with [them] at night.” Taking a girl for granted and being inconsiderate, the filmstrip implies, is no more likely to win friends than promiscuity, and it is better to emulate Carolyn and Wally than to follow the examples of Jerry and Jenny.
3 “Supervising Women Workers”
This 1944 United States Office of Education Training Film, produced by the Division of Visual Aids of the U.S. Office of Education, takes contemporary viewers back to a period of blatant sexism in which female employees were seen to present unique problems for their supervisors.
As a group of women streams onto a factory worksite, Joe, the foreman, admits to his supervisor Mr. Brooks, “Women scare me—at least, they do in a factory.” Mr. Brooks replies, “Maybe the women are scared, too, Joe,” reminding the foreman that “most of them are working on their first industrial job” in “a totally unfamiliar world.” However, Mr. Brooks adds a sexist comment: “They’re not naturally familiar with mechanical principles, nor machines,” as men apparently were believed to be. But, with patience, Mr. Brooks assures Joe, “Women workers can be surprisingly good producers.”
Mr. Brooks provides a few tips about “breaking in new workers, especially a woman,” such as simplifying the steps in a process, avoiding technical jargon, and assigning them “routine, repetitive work.” Only after Joe asks his wife what she did that day, and she responds with a long list of tasks and reminds him that many of the women workers perform “two jobs, one in the home, one in the plant,” does he begin to see things from his female employees’ perspective. Even so, many more sexist comments follow, during Mr. Brooks’s return visit, as Joe and Mr. Brooks exchange notes.
2 “What About Juvenile Delinquency?”
As this 1955 Centron Productions filmstrip shows, American educators remained interested in teaching students about all manner of topics, including street gangs and curfews. Impatient with a man whom they think waits too long at a stop sign, four members of a local gang twice bump his sedan with their convertible. When the driver confronts the hoodlums, they beat him severely. After the victim’s teenage son James, a member of the same gang, learns they’ve beaten his father, he rushes home to find his mother tending to his father’s injuries.
As a result, James stands up to the gang. He defends the actions of law-abiding students to the city council, perhaps avoiding the council’s enactment of laws curtailing teenagers’ activities. The film ends with an open-ended question directed to the audience: “What can you do to prevent juvenile delinquency?”
1 “Stillman Fires Collection: Five Fires”
As is the case with most of the twentieth-century educational filmstrips, the title of this silent picture makes clear its nature—and, in this instance, its contents. Subtitles introduce each fire—but there are seven of them, not five.
First up is the 1946 La Salle Hotel fire in Chicago, in which 58 people died. Inside the high-rise building, hallways and rooms have been gutted by the blaze. Corpses are laid out on the floor, on a table, on a stretcher, some beneath covers, others displaying arms as the bodies are fingerprinted for postmortem identification. A woman turns away, gagging.
The other fires—at Weehawken Pier in 1946, in San Francisco (undated); in a barracks in Tokyo in 1946, at the Yokohama Post Exchange in 1946, at a refinery in Whiting, Indiana (undated), and at the Staten Island Ferry in 1946—provide scenes equally as dramatic, if not as ghastly as the La Salle Hotel blaze. Walls of flame and mountains of smoke with firefighters ascending ladders as they bear a seemingly endless length of hose. Smoke pouring through the windows into the sky, and soldiers rushing from fiery barracks. Billowing mountains of churning smoke, collapsing walls, fountains of fire hose discharges, a waterfall cascading over the edges of flat roofs, and fire-warped subway cars. If a lesson was needed about the dangers of fire, this filmstrip certainly provides it.