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Collecting Filmstrips

Kids these days: they don’t remember education the way us thirty-somethings do. Back in our day, there wasn’t educational ‘software’ or ‘video’ — there were two multimedia formats: movies and filmstrips. Filmstrips: Dukane Filmstrip ProjectorMovies were a rare pleasure — there were fewer of them, and they prevented class interaction. ‘Sit and watch’ was the process; we once had one obviously bored teacher who, after watching a rather boring film in music class, let us watch the movie backwards rather than rewinding it the regular way. But, I digress…

While movies are a technology supplanted by a newer format — video — filmstrips have become an archaic format. Educational software somewhat resembles the filmstrip, but surpasses the filmstrip’s capability with alternate routes to the end. A filmstrip is essentially a slideshow accompanied by audio of some sort. If you’re of my age, you’re very familiar with the ‘when you hear this noise *beep* hit the advance button’ warning at the beginning of a strip’s audio. The more attentive or popular students were entrusted with the duty of controlling the filmstrip projector, although untrusting teachers may have chosen to run it themselves. Filmstrips, unlike movies, allowed the teacher to stop the process mid-stride and add comments, answer questions, and maybe discipline unruly audience-members. I admit, I never actually read A Wrinkle In Time, so my entire knowledge of the book comes from a 24-frame filmstrip we watched in the third grade. As you might guess, my understanding of the book is more hole-filled than had I read the Cliff’s Notes, and given the mind-bending qualities of the book I really had no idea what was going on. Still, I learned a lot — the Dewey Decimal system, the metric system, dialing with an area code — from filmstrips over the years.

Filmstrips are on my mind because of an amazing find today at a thrift shop: a DuKane Super Micromatic slide-film projector. When I was in school, filmstrips were projected out of small plastic projectors with a tape-player built into the back-end. This projector, when unpacked from its condensed case, has a full-sized record player attached. Filmstrips have been around a lot longer than the innovation of the compact cassette in the dukane-portable-viewer-open.jpg1970s, so of course the media of the 1950s was distributed on record album. For example, my Esther Williams Swimming Pool filmstrip came as a filmstrip with a 45rpm record album (recorded only on one side). The salesman brought along his portable filmstrip viewer to the potential customer’s home, loaded the film, put on the record, and Esther Williams herself could present her pools’ virtues in her own voice.

Portable viewers were available when I was on school, too: they were available if you missed a day of school and – god forbid — missed an absolutely essential filmstrip. As with the plastic, cassette-enabled filmstrip projectors, these machines were plastic and flimsy. The Esther Williams Swimming Pool distributor carried around this behemoth — the DuKane Flip-Top Sound Slidefilm Projector. When I first picked it up at a flea market, I was certain it was a portable record player. It had all the hallmarks of a turntable: recessed knobs, heavy-duty hinges, a large cloth-covered speaker grill, ugly patterned leatherette outside. However, upon opening it, I was surprised dukane-portable-viewer-closed.jpgto find a screen underneath.

The projectors are difficult to find in good working condition, as with any older media, but I’ve found filmstrips many places. Library sales are of course a good source for filmstrips, but I’ve found them at rummage sales of ex-teachers, religious films at church sales, and at flea markets. As most libraries and educational sources have long since moved on to video, much of the filmstrip libraries have already been liquidated.

The filmstrip media is essentially the same 35mm slide film you use to document your travels to Knott’s Berry Farm. As such, it’s subject to the same sort of fading and color-shift you find in all slides from the sixties. Finding a good-quality film will prove difficult, since exposure to heat accelerates the reaction, and if the filmstrip saw regular use in school it will have felt a lion’s share of heat every time it was shown. Also, if the filmstrip is from the 1940s or later, you will have to find the accompanying recording, or the ‘narration sheet.’ Some strips had the narration on the frames, like a silent movie, but when sound was added quite often the frames carry no information and require the narration to understand. If you’re at a sale, some well-meaning salesperson may have properly organized by placing the record or tape in the filmstrip-collection.jpgbox with their KISS and Skid Row cast-offs; if you find a lone filmstrip, always ask if the recording is still around.

While I don’t endorse it, if you absolutely must project a found filmstrip and are without the equipment, any photolab that develops slide film should be able to cut the filmstrip and mount it in slide frames for a nominal fee. The tape cassette or album with the narration can be played on any compatible player. The simplicity and compatibility of filmstrips made them an excellent tool for teaching, but the advances of technology have made them obsolete. If you haven’t noticed, the wifey and I love the obsolete — now that we have a full-fledged working filmstrip projector, we hatched a plan: Using a regular 35mm camera loaded with slide film and our Recordio record-album recorder, we can make our own filmstrips. Our kids will think we’re the coolest parents ever, right?


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LissaSue

LissaSue HI! Thanks for posting this article. It brought back a lot of great memories. I did have a question about some 1976 bible story filmstrips that I've found. I have 10 boxes that have the film, book, cassette, and leader's guide and I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to price them? or even if their worth anything? Anything you can help with would be great! February 18th, 2014 at 1:35 AM

Cindi Hi! I was so happy to find your page here! I recently purchased some filmstrips from a garage sale and I was doing some research. What I got was a 35mm silent filmstrip/slide projector, also a Dukane. It must have belonged to a teacher because it came with about a dozen disney safety filmstrips. Remember the ones with Goofy? Anyway, the filmstrip cases say SOUND on them. Do you think this means the sound is on the film or that the cassettes are missing? I don't collect these but I do remember watching them in school and I even got to press the button a few times myself! Any advice you could offer would be appreciated! May 17th, 2014 at 5:00 PM

Melissa Ok, so what I need to know is....Did you make your own filmstrips????? and did your process work? I purchased an old film strip projector that had a dozen or so films (minus cassettes, still looking for those) and thought it would be wonderful for my third grade class to have the same experience that I had in the same grade!!! I was also hoping to purchase some of the blank film so they could take a hand at making their own in lieu of a power point presentation....any ideas where I can find the film? any help would be appreciated....BTW love the blog post June 4th, 2014 at 12:27 PM

Tracy Great article. I just found four very large red cases with film strips in plastic cases. A school was throwing them out and the original finder had them in his garage sale, where I bought them. Not sure what to do with them. June 29th, 2014 at 7:28 PM

Jessica Hi Cindy! I work at a school library and just found a cache of Disney filmstrips with cassettes. (It's like a boxed set). So, if yours say sound then you are probably missing the cassettes. September 18th, 2014 at 4:43 PM

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