Less than two weeks ago, while cleaning out the attic, my wife and I finally parted ways with our dusty VCR and two brown bags filled with accompanying VHS tapes. In a digital world where every film and TV series contained in those bags can be consumed with the touch of a button, holding on to relics from a bygone, analog age just don't make sense.
So it wasn't with much surprise that Funai Electric, the last company known to make VCRs, recently announced that it was ceasing production of the devices. The decision effectively places the final nail in the coffin of a celebrated technology with a history spanning more than 40 years. For anyone older than 30, it's truly the end of an era.
Join me now in celebrating a format that we may have moved on from years ago but it always hold a certain nostalgia. Below are just a few of my own memories of countless entertainment from the beloved VCR.
1. Be kind, rewind.
Even today, some younger people have no idea what this iconic phrase means. These days, VHS is considered so obscure that one software developer has even used it as an age verification check to enter its website. Anyways, before the "Menu" button existed, re-watching a film meant waiting patiently for several minutes for the whole thing to rewind. You only knew the end was near because the high-pitched tone of the VCR would slowly ebb. And forget chapters. If you wanted to skip to your favorite scene from a film, you needed to make note of the time code on the front of the VCR and forward your way there. Children of the '80s learned patience with VCR technology.
2. VHS camcorders
Before the days of recording everything using our smartphones, we lugged bulky cameras that merged with the guts of a VCR around. I have fond memories of these giant things being set up in the corner of the dining room to record holiday dinners, card games and birthdays. In a pinch, the device also worked as a portable VCR that could be hooked up to a television. In lieu of an LCD screen, the early models from the mid-'80s featured a simple black-and-white preview through the viewfinder. It all seems archaic by today's standards, but the no-hassle home recording offered by VHS was a pretty incredible innovation growing up.
3. The dreaded stuck tape
Should a particular VHS tape become stuck, removing it from the VCR without ruining everything was a maddening exercise. Often times, you would be rewarded with the extraction of a cassette with the sickening image of magnetic tape freely flowing out the back. Many a tape met its end after being "eaten" by our home VCR.
4. Video rentals
Remember Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video and the countless other small businesses that catered to the home VCR scene? While DVD eventually came to dominate these stores, I'll forever remember the vast array of VHS tapes lining the walls, the endless bickering between family members over which one to watch, and the excitement over taking something home. What I won't miss? The dreaded late fees, the horror of putting the wrong VHS movie in the box, or the VCR eating the tape and having to fork over some ridiculous amount of money for its replacement.
5. Recording everything
VCR marked the first time home consumers could actually record the images flashing across their screens. This led to a massive uptake in blank VHS tapes, with people recording everything from major news events to television series at the touch of a button. Up in my parent's attic, there are still dozens of VHS tapes with recordings of television specials, presidential inaugurations, TV series like "Air Wolf," and other random moments. Because VHS offered the ability to record as long as five hours, many people would set them up and walk away, in the process capturing commercials, news updates, and other time capsule moments that today offer amusing insights into the late '80s and early '90s.
6. VHS sticker labels
I hated these. My parents will move one day, and when they do, I'm convinced we'll be able to use the ones filed away somewhere as packing tape.
7. Widescreen vs. Pan and Scan
Before widescreen became the defacto standard it is today, boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio televisions were the norm. This presented a problem to the studios, which released movies for widescreen theaters, only to have to cut them down using a process called Pan and Scan to fit on small screens. Later, films and TV shows were offered in their native widescreens, which presented the film as intended — but this severely limited the viewing area. Remember, these were the days when having a TV larger than 20 inches wide was a luxury. For a long time, VHS tapes came in both full screen and widescreen versions, with the latter generally commanding a premium.
Often times, the same VHS tape was used more than once to record a program. Because not everything was perfectly erased, you would sometimes witness amusing video artifacts from the previous recording showing through. If memory serves me right, you could only "tape over" another recording so many times before the ghosting became too distracting to avoid.
Have some memories of your own to share regarding VCRs and VHS tapes? Let us know in the comments below.