Rise of Cartoon Use in Education

This synthesis paper looks at the origins and rise of instructional cartoons with a concentration on early 20th Century and expansion of use through WWII. This paper is limited to animated films in North America, exploring the chronology, military and non-military studio involvement.

Winsor McCay is attributed with releasing the first commercial, non-fiction, animated film, The Sinking of the Lusitania in 1918 (Roe, 2009, p. 42). It is a “passionate and journalistically convincing re-telling of an event that had never been photographed” (DelGaudio, 1997, p. 190). Shown in theatres, it is the earliest known animated documentary intended to teach about a historical event.

Max Fleischer, inventor of the rotoscope in 1915, became involved with Bray while looking to distribute his first film. He remained with Bray until opening Out of the Inkwell Films Inc. in 1921 with his brother, Dave (Langer, 1975, p.48).

It is during his time with Bray that Max Fleischer animated what are thought to be the first fully animated instructional films, How to Read an Army Map, and How to Fire a Lewis Gun (1917) (Langer 1975, p.49). Fleischer made animated training films at Bray covering hundreds of different subjects training American soldiers on their way to Europe (Roe, 2009, p.43) prior to Armistice.

Once their own studio was established and following in the tradition of The Sinking of the Lusitania, the Fleischer brothers started exploring other themes. They created their first feature-length film using animation interspersed with title cards, The Einstein Theory of Relativity (1923). Following this success, they made Evolution in 1925 (Langer, 1975, p. 49). It is serious films like these that showed the scope of animation for illustrating events no camera can see (DeGaudio, p. 190)

Instructional animation became widely used during WWII due to US government investment. The Office of War Information established a film branch, the Bureau of Motion Pictures, intended for training films and propaganda to be produced by the Signal Corps’ Army Pictorial Service. The Signal Corps had studios in New York, New Jersey and Ohio (Birdwell, 2005, p. 204), and on the old Fox studio (Fort Fox) in Hollywood, California (Nel, 2007, para. 3). While non-military instructional animations were being made in civilian studios, many of those same studios were commissioned to make films for the US military.

In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the US government gave Walt Disney his first American commission: to make 20 training films for the Navy on identifying aircraft and warships. Thousands of men were enrolling in the army and the US government needed a way to train large numbers of men efficiently and quickly to act as a unit. (Birdwell, 2005, p.203). Troops were not well educated; many were not literate. Use of simple language and entertaining films got their messages across (Nel 2007). By 1943, 94% of Disney’s output was making films for the government and military (Roe, 2009, p. 44)

Victory through Air Power, based on Major Alexander P. Seversky’s book and self-funded by Disney, demonstrated the ability of an animation to influence. Created in 1943, it was intended to persuade the US Military that they should be using long-range bombers to gain strategic advantage in the war. The film was a huge critical success, gaining the attention of Winston Churchill who recommended it to Roosevelt, who then subsequently adopted long-range bombing. With this, the US government realized the power of animation to sway audience opinion (Roe, 2009, p.52).

In 1943 Major Frank Capra (director of the Why We Fight films) proposed the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a 20-minute variety piece to be produced twice a month consisting of training, newsreels, propaganda and entertainment (Birdwell, 2005). Because the variety shows were only going to be shown to soldiers (without civilian distribution), the films avoided the Motion Picture Industry’s censorship arm, the Production Code Administration (PCA), allowing the Army-Navy Screen Magazine to appeal broadly to the primarily male, Christian, generally white audience of soldiers with racy, rude, political films (Birdwell, 2005).

     Training films of the time (non-animated) were purported to be boring (Birdwell, 2005). Capra approached Warner Brothers to ask about making short cartoon training films. Leon Schlesinger, producer of Merrie Melodies and Loony Tunes put together five units. Each had their own style and feel, and each led by one of Fred ‘Tex’ Avery, Isodore ‘Fritz’ Freleng, Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. Voice acting Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny), and music was scored by Carl Stalling. P.D. Eastman and later Munro Leaf (at that time both emerging children’s book authors) were employed as writers at Fort Fox (1943), specifically working on what became known as the Private SNAFU films (Birdwell, 2005; Nel, 2007; Roe, 2009). Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was placed in charge of the output of the units, as well as being general scenarist. (Birdwell, 2005 p. 206; Nel, 2007, para. 3).

With Geisel at the head and the knowledge that the PCA would not censor the cartoons, the team drew on the Army, its bureaucracy and language to create an Elmer Fudd like character: ‘Private SNAFU’. He was designed to be a model of the worst soldier in the army, his name an Army acronym for Situation Normal All Fouled [sic] Up. (Birdwell, 2005).Opening Card of the US army WWII short animated films "Private SNAFU"

SNAFU films used simple language, humour and moral tales to educate troops about what their attitude should be towards the enemy, and skills that would keep them alive while out on the lines. For example, the film Private SNAFU vs. Malaria Mike was part of an ongoing campaign to educate recruits that mosquitos cause Malaria, and what they could do to avoid infection (Nel, 2007). They reflected the experience of the non-career soldier while teaching cautionary tales in Seussian rhyme (Birdwell, 2008).

Factors that made the SNAFU films effective are generalizable to other settings. Use of animation demonstrates Edward Tufte’s notion that envisioned information is easier to understand and retain (Roe, 2007, p.49). Animation has the ability to show events no camera can see (DeGaudio, p. 190) such as in The Sinking of the Lusitania, and Stop That Tank (1942) where the animation segues from a caricature of Hitler being cast into hell to a realistic animated depiction of the inner workings and care of the gun that sent him there (Roe, 2009, p.45). Cartoons capacity to show the as-yet unknown, like scientific theories (DeGaudio, p, 193), made the Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Evolution effective in communicating ideas, especially through the use of metamorphosis to help the audience make mental connections (Roe, 2007, p. 47).

Post war Disney continued to make educational films for corporations, including Dow Chemical, Texaco and General Motors (DelGaudio, 1997, p.190). Warner Brothers Studio moved back to entertainment-focused cartoons, but their involvement in the Private SNAFU films helped ensure that the US government would continue to make cartoon civil defense educational films, such as Duck and Cover (1951). Other companies began making civilian educational cartoons, including Bell Telephone, the Jam Handy Organization with Bray Studios. Topics included everything from on-the-job training films to “mental hygiene” and health films for school settings (DelGaudio, 1997).

The flexibility of cartoons allows for envisioning events and concepts never before seen. Use of humour, simple language, and metamorphosis holds our attention while making the unknown knowable.  Had it not been for the early contributions of McCay, Bray and Fleischer and the later investment of the US military, educational cartoons would have taken a very different path through development and implementation.


Birdwell, M. (2005). Technical fairy first class? Is this any way to Run an Army?: Private SNAFU and World War II. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 25(2), 203–212.

DelGaudio, S. (1997). If truth be told, can toons tell it? Documentary and animation. Film History; New York, 9(2), 189–199.

Langer, M. (1975). Max and Dave Fleischer. Film Comment; New York, 11(1), 48–56.

Nel, P. (2007). Children’s Literature Goes to War: Dr. Seuss, P. D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, and the Private SNAFU Films (1943–46). The Journal of Popular Culture, 40(3), 468–487. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2007.00404.x

Roe, A. H. (2009). Animating documentary (Doctoral dissertation) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/304996693/abstract/809DFEAA46964F2EPQ/12

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