Sometimes, there are pictures and records stored away in your grandma’s attic that nobody remembers. Other times, there are 46 reels of forgotten 8mm home movies. 

During my junior year of high school in 2017, I went to a yard sale and stumbled across something I had never seen before. A Bell & Howell 8mm film projector! I’d always loved antiques, and it was only $20! Sold. I had no idea how to use it and didn’t have any film.

Advertisement for the same 8mm projector I bought at an estate sale in 2017.

Desperate to try watching anything, I bought two film reels on eBay: a Bugs Bunny episode and a random football game from 1971. I messed around with the projector, feeding the film through slots, adjusting the brightness, and messing with the focus. At first, Bugs Bunny was moving in slow motion. Then, he looked like he’d had 10 cups of coffee. But after more tweaking, Bugs Bunny casually chewed a carrot on my bedroom wall.

That summer, my parents, my Dad’s two brothers, my aunt, and all six cousins gathered at my grandmother’s house. I brought my projector to show them Bugs. When she saw the projector, my grandmother said, “I think there are some old films in the attic. Let me see…” She returned with a dusty box filled with 46 reels of home movies my grandparents shot in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

That evening, we didn’t watch Bugs Bunny. I set up my clunky projector, draped a white sheet over the fireplace, and the whole family sat down. I picked a random reel from the box, and with a hum and clicking sound, a picture came alive on a wall of a 6-year-old. It was my Uncle! And after 20 seconds, another child stumbled onto the scene — my Dad! The camera panned, and we saw my grandmother smiling at my grandfather behind it. The year was 1969 — the film was 48 years old.

We stayed in that room for a long time. We watched my Dad, my uncle, and my grandparents celebrate Christmas. We cheered when my Dad’s younger brother, Bruce, entered the scene for the first time as a baby crawling on the floor. We watched my Dad get a little trigger-happy with the hose during a summer afternoon washing the Mustang, trying to spray my grandmother. That reel ended with my Dad giving the camera this mischievous look — I can hear my grandfather behind it begging him not to do it — and spraying him, with all the glee in the world. 

My Dad going rogue with the hose during a summer day in 1972!

Sometimes, there are records — pictures, films, documents — stored away that nobody remembers. Ask your family about home movies! In the ‘60s and ‘70s, affordable, easy-to-use 8mm cameras caught the hearts of thousands of Americans. Maybe there are a few in your grandparents attics waiting for you to find them. If you have 8mm film, but no projector, there are companies — I’d recommend ARS Video Inc.Legacybox, and Just 8mm — you can just send it to in the mail that will digitize it for you.

Jack Palmer has done genealogy research since he was ten years old and loves writing about it for family, friends, and anybody else who might enjoy research stories and advice. He graduated from Duke University in May 2023, majoring in History and Psychology, and is the author of Helen & Frank: A Biography, a biography about his great-grandparents.

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