New Participatory Project: Classroom Propaganda of Yesteryear

"Capitalism", a Coronet film, explained the American economy through the story of a corner grocer and kids buying supplies for a wienie roast.

We've started an article on Sourcewatch about Coronet Instructional Films, a company that produced cheesy "social guidance" films in the period following World War II, dealing with topics such as personal hygiene, appropriate dating behavior for teenagers, and American economic and social values. The unintentionally humorous qualities of these films have made them ripe targets for ridicule on Comedy Central's Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and elsewhere. However, they had a serious purpose, according to Ken Smith, who has written a book about what he calls "mental hygiene" films. "Adults were scared," he says. "We forget that nowadays and look back on the '50s as an innocent time. No, parents were scared shitless of the same things they are now. Whether it was how to teach a kid to behave on a date or not to have sex or to drive safely, there was a world full of dangers, and that's why these films exist." In addition to amusement, therefore, studying these films can provide insights into social attitudes as well as the propaganda techniques used to indoctrinate a generation of Americans.

You can help with this research by expanding the article on Coronet Instructional Films or by adding articles about similar filmmakers, such as Sid Davis or the Centron Corporation. Perhaps you'd like to watch one of the films -- many of which can be found online at the Internet Archive -- and add a description, summarizing and analyzing its content. If this is your first time editing on SourceWatch, you can register here, and learn more about adding information to the site here, here and here. Have fun, and thanks for your help!


Great idea, and high time it turned into a project!

Just a few thoughts about educational films, in no particular order:

1. Social guidance films aren't just creatures of the post-World War II era. They were made as early as the 1910s, flourished in the 1920s and are still being made today. The difference between films then and now isn't so much in the ideas they push on their viewers (though arguments and ideas do evolve), but in their style and appearance.

2. The quote from Ken Smith's delightful book doesn't do justice to his full argument or to the many reasons why these films were produced. Many of the ed films from the 1940s-1950s were made as responses to the emergence of a youth culture that grew out of the wartime period, when kids had a lot of freedom and families underwent great stresses, and were part of a behavior offensive to train newly sophisticated teens how to behave like kids again. The "adults were scared" argument doesn't really explain why several hundred of these films were made. Adults were scared of 1920s flappers, 1930s kids-on-the-run, 1940s Victory Girls, 1950s juvenile delinquents, 1960s hippies, 1970s PCPers, 1980s gangstas, and so on.

3. Many of these films were in fact made in response to moral panics (see definition in Wikipedia at that were frequently not based in reality. We have yet to see a serious study of postwar educational films that connects them to real and imagined social conditions.

4. Just as fascinating as educational films, if not more so, are commercially sponsored films aimed to youth and shown widely in classrooms. Again, this is a trend that goes back to the 1910s and continues today in, for example, McDonald's Corporation-sponsored videos on nutrition. Many sponsored films can be seen at the Internet Archive; a good place to begin a search for both sponsored and educational films is

5. These films do indeed seem to illuminate social attitudes, but whose? And how were they received? We have little real data on reception -- what kids thought of the films they were shown. What we can say is that many of these films reflected the attitudes and agendas of certain elites -- educators, psychologists, the clergy, sociologists and some politicians -- who wished to persuade kids to behave in certain ways. Whether or not they worked is still to be shown. It is hard to get inside the head of a teenager in a dark classroom in the late 1940s.

Anyway, a fascinating topic.


The points you raise each seem to me to be starting points for possible research that could be done in an interesting way using the internet. For example, you write: "These films do indeed seem to illuminate social attitudes, but whose? And how were they received? We have little real data on reception -- what kids thought of the films they were shown." This may be true, but there are still lots of people alive who remember seeing some of these films as kids and whose recollections could tell us some interesting things about reception. (For example, I remember myself being shown a number of driver's education films that seem to be from this genre, featuring mostly gory footage of actual corpses and injuries sustained by unsafe drivers. The purpose of the films, of course, was to scare kids into obeying traffic laws, but for at least some of the kids in the class, there was a sort of excitement about watching them and a sort of shock-based entertainment value.)

It would be great if we could figure out some system for collecting these sorts of recollections in a systematic fashion.