Hard as it may be to believe, we didn’t always get practical advice and information from the internet. Some lucky families had encyclopedia sets to peruse on their bookshelves or even parents who might be able to easily answer a question about how to prepare a meal or talk to a girl.
For everyone else, there was the educational short film. Screened in classrooms and sometimes in movie theaters during the mid-20th century and beyond, these shorts were known as "mental hygiene" programs and promoted everything from proper bathing to driving instructions to dating advice as a kind of postwar societal tutorial. Many were produced by Coronet Films, which was said to have been pumping out a new short every three and a half days at the apex of their success in the 1950s.
Thanks to sheer volume, not all the shorts had valuable life lessons to impart. Some, like the ones below, were pedantic in the extreme. Proceed only if you need exhaustive detail on life’s most basic expressions of common sense.
And before you chuckle with too much condescension, remember: Someone will be ironically watching your TikTok life hacks 70 years from now.
1. Let’s Make a Sandwich (1950)
Do the intricacies of tuna on rye mystify you? Are you ignorant of the “aesthetic properties” of parsley? Then you might be the target audience for this primer on how to prepare a sandwich the “right” way. Your guides: Sally Gasgow and her mother, who are determined to prepare a perfect post-movie snack. This somehow grows to include copious amounts of melted butter to add to the butter already on the bread.
Sally means business: After mixing up the tuna in a saucepan, she pulls the toasted bread from a broiler and layers the fishy concoction on top. You’ll wonder how you ever made a sandwich without a natural gas supply again. Makes sense—the film was backed by the American Gas Association.
2. How To Be Pretty (Circa 1940s)
How to Be Pretty amounts to a short, brusque lecture on why teen girls should pay meticulous attention to “looking your best.” But the uncredited speaker has no time to impart advice on hairstyling or clothing. Instead, she advocates for obscure advice like using soap and water, brushing one’s teeth, and using deodorant.
3. Telephone Courtesy
Whether you’re using a rotary dial or an Apple iPhone, having manners while on the line is paramount. That’s the idea presented by the propagandists at Bell, who sponsored this short on how to conduct yourself in telecommunications and features one character exclaiming “that girl sure knows how to handle a switchboard.” You’ll learn such proper telephone habits as not screaming at your caller and waiting for a dial tone before dialing. Advice that could be communicated with brevity goes on for 24 interminable minutes. It’s the Berlin Alexanderplatz of telephone manners movies.
4. What Makes a Good Party? (1950)
Do you think a fun party is mostly due to personable guests and the ready availability of alcohol? Then you’re doing fun wrong. What Makes a Good Party? offers a stuffy guide to getting down, from making sure you don’t forget to invite people all the way to serving food. When you’re really strapped for ideas, the film advises viewers to visit a library for more ideas. Libraries: Where the party starts.
5. Better Use of Leisure Time (1950)
In the 1950s, no behavior was too banal for the educational short film industry. In Better Use of Leisure Time, a swell guy named Ken Michaels is scolded by an unseen narrator for wasting his free time loafing. “I went down to the bowling alley, I went over to the drug store—none of the gang was there,” Ken protests. In the end, the viewer may be left with the sobering thought that they had better things to do with their own downtime than watch this short.
6. Your Thrift Habits (1948)
Meet Jack, who treats the concept of saving money and sticking to a budget as though he were being asked to understand astrophysics or the possibility of levitation. “How?” Jack wails. “How do you work your budget?” It’s rhetorical, as Jack immediately dismisses any thought of being able to hold on to his cash. “Ah, no. It wouldn’t work for me anyway,” he says. Fortunately, he has a friend in a teenaged version of Warren Buffett, who advises him on how to not spend every single dime that crosses his path on ice cream and ugly sweaters.
7. It Must Be the Neighbors (1966)
The day you ignore improperly stored garbage is the day you begin to have problems with rodents and other nuisances. That’s the moral of this short, which imparts wisdom on proper sanitation practices and reminds homeowners not to leave rotting refuse in the yard lest dengue fever make a comeback.
8. The Bully (1952)
Meet Chick Allen, who uses his superior growth hormone levels to torment peers that have the misfortune to be only half his size. With his deep baritone, Chick imposes his will, ruling his social circle with an iron fist. But Chick learns that his abrasive attitude won’t win him any friends when classmates don’t inform him of a change in venue for a picnic. (It’s no wonder Chick is so upset: He’s being lied to.) The viewer is left to wonder what happens after Chick discovers the ruse, but the fact that his fists are balled up means he’s probably not going to take it well and his tyranny will continue unchecked.
9. Cooking: Kitchen Safety (1949)
Have you never, ever been in a residential kitchen before? Then you may benefit from the “sad story” of Eleanor Jones, who winds up in the hospital after embarking on a series of Jackie Chan-esque stunts in an attempt to clean her kitchen. To wipe the top of the refrigerator, Eleanor uses a chair stacked with a wooden box, for example. While Eleanor convalesces, advice on grease spills and handling sharp knives is dispensed.
10. What to Do on a Date (1950)
Abandon any idea of spontaneity when dating with this handy guide to being predictable. Tips include taking your sweetheart to the community center; asking your partner if they’re having a good time; and winding down a whirlwind evening by setting up date number two—a weenie roast.
11. Joan Avoids a Cold (1947)
In this psychological thriller, a little tyke named George does everything in his power to transmit communicable disease by sneezing into the open air, sharing food, and wearing wet clothes. Only the titular Joan practices good health habits, like not coughing into someone’s eyes. But the young actor portraying George is no Shirley Temple, and advice like dosing cod liver oil to boost the immune system should be run by a physician first.