When “multimedia” in the classroom meant: filmstrips

Not long ago I was chatting with our friend Pauline, who is a terrific photographer, amazing gardener, world traveller, lover of books, supporter of libraries (she’s a retired librarian) and fellow appreciator of the joys of living in beautiful North of 7. Our topic of conversation was, as it happened, libraries and the kinds of resources – not just books! – that they offer. And somehow in that conversation, up popped a word that I’d not heard in a long, long time:


Filmstrips, people! Do you remember filmstrips? From back in your school days? Okay, well, if you happen to be younger than 48, you probably don’t. Anyway: how on earth Pauline and I got on to filmstrips, I haven’t the vaguest idea. But it was fun to be reminded of them – of the days when they were kind of the height of audio-visual, multimedia, entertaining interactivity (and of course learning) for schoolkids.

When I went poking around on the internet for information and visuals about filmstrips, I was a little disappointed. I did find an old filmstrip called The Story of Rubber – wake me up when it’s over – on YouTube, and that’s what you see at the top of this post. The Wikipedia entry for filmstrips (it’s here) has one of those announcements at the top saying it “needs additional citations for verification,” which of course makes you distrust the merit of its contents. Nevertheless, its description is accurate, as far as I can tell:

The filmstrip was a common form of still image instructional multimedia, once commonly used by educators in primary and secondary schools …, overtaken at the end of the eighties by newer and increasingly lower-cost full-motion videocassettes and later on by DVDs. From the 1940s to 1980s, filmstrips provided an easy and inexpensive alternative to 16mm projector educational films, requiring very little storage space and being very quick to rewind for the next use.

Change Your Underwear

The only known book about filmstrips.

And here is another thing on YouTube, an affable chap telling us a lot about filmstrips but using projector technology from the early ’80s, which is not quite the right era for what I’m talking about. Oh, and I also discovered that there’s a book about filmstrips! Engagingly called Change Your Underwear Twice a Week: Lessons From the Golden Age of Classroom Filmstrips. The amazon.com entry for it says (in part):

In the pre-Internet, pre-VCR—oh, go ahead, call them prehistoric—days of baby boomers’ grade school, the high art of audiovisual classroom programming was the filmstrip. If you’re old enough, you remember the darkened room, the hum of the projector, and the beeep that signaled the teacher to turn to the next frame.

In fact, most of the stuff I found was about filmstrips being used for lessons by classroom teachers, using a fairly big projector and, apparently, an LP record (maybe later a cassette tape?) that served as the soundtrack and provided those beeps telling the teacher (or whomever ran the projector) when to move on to the next image. Now, I hate to think that my memory is failing me, but I can’t actually remember filmstrips being shown in the classroom back in my days at Madoc Township Public School – or at least, maybe I can, but I don’t recall a recorded soundtrack. Do any of my contemporaries?

filmstrip canisters

This image I found on the internet of filmstrip canisters reminded me of getting said filmstrips from the library and viewing them – but only vaguely. Am I the only one who’s kind of forgotten those filmstrip days?

What I do remember is that when a new and pretty fancy (by rural-Ontario-schools-in-the-late-’60s-and-early-’70s standards) library was added to Madoc Township Public School – one that, I discovered on a school-reunion visit a few years back, seems to have been dismantled, more’s the pity – we had a higher-tech version of filmstrips. What that wonderful library offered was small projectors for individual use, so that a kid could get a filmstrip – remember those little black tubes they were wound up in? – and watch it on his or her own. Was there sound? Lordy, I can’t remember – except the harder I think about it, the more a piercing beep sound comes back to me, the sound that told you it was time to, yes, move on to the next image.

Anyway: I have just passed on the sum total of my knowledge and recollections about filmstrips, and I would be the first to say that that sum total is pretty pathetic.

But maybe that’s what happens when a piece of technology gets so utterly obsolete so quickly. Can you say: 8-tracks?

4 thoughts on “When “multimedia” in the classroom meant: filmstrips

  1. Ah, those were the days! You don’t remember the sound tracks because most of them were unbelievably boring! Some school board media centres were still lending filmstrips to schools in the 1990’s and early in the 2000’s. And even then some teachers were upset when they finally replaced them with videos! And if you may also remember other old technologies from your long ago school days, before the advent of photocopiers: the gestetner (or mimeograph) – hand cranked copies using a master stencil cut by typewriter keys; spirit duplicators (ditto machines) with purple wax imprinted on the back of a master and cranked through a machine that gave off an unforgettably intoxicating smell from the “spirits” filling its tank; and even earlier, the hectograph (used when I started teaching in 1958) a cake pan full of a gel onto which you somehow imprinted a purple (again) master copy! Much less paper was generated when copying was this tedious!!

  2. We had a History teacher retire I’d say about 6 years ago. As a gift, the department gave him a filmstrip projector. “Dutch” as everyone, including the students, called him, STILL SHOWED filmstrips in class up to 6 years ago. Handwrote all of his worksheets. I daresay some of the ones that he brought to the copy machine were the blue originals.

    Your post immediately sent me to search out my favorite filmstrip series of my childhood: The Lolipop Dragon. I would get so excited if I was chosen to work the machine. What a great memory!

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