From the end of World War II until the early 1990s, the world faced a period of heightened international tension and competition called the Cold War. The United States and the non-communist world faced extraordinary circumstances, which they saw as a threat to world peace, democracy, and security:
The Federal Civil Defense AdministrationThe federal government responded to heightened public anxiety by creating the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), later called the Office of Civil Defense, to instruct the public about how to prepare for a nuclear assault. The Eisenhower administration distributed information to educate Americans about how they could protect themselves. Survival literature was written primarily for a suburban audience, since it was assumed that cities would be targets and most urban dwellers would not survive. Officials at the FCDA stated that if people were educated and prepared for a nuclear attack, they could survive an atomic bomb and avoid the wholesale death and destruction that had occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.What is a fallout shelter and how were they built?A fallout shelter is a civil defense measure intended to reduce casualties in a nuclear war. It is designed to allow those inside it to avoid exposure to harmful fallout from a nuclear blast and its likely aftermath of radiation until radioactivity has dropped to a safer level. A basic fallout shelter consists of shielding that reduces gamma-ray exposure. Since the most dangerous fallout has the consistency of sand or finely ground pumice, a successful fallout shelter need not filter fine dust from air. The fine dust both emits relatively little radiation and does not settle to the earth, where the fallout shelter exists. Concrete, bricks, earth, and sand are some of the materials that are dense or heavy enough to provide fallout protection.Concrete was the favored building material of fallout shelters, with walls at least 12 inches thick. The required shielding could be accomplished with 10 times the amount of any quantity of material capable of cutting gamma-ray effects in half. Shields that reduce gamma ray intensity by 50 percent include 0.4 inches of lead, 2.4 inches of concrete, 3.6 inches of packed dirt or 500 feet of air. When multiple thicknesses are built, the shielding multiplies.The federal government recommended that fallout shelters be placed in a basement or buried in the backyard. The idea was to get as much mass as possible between survivors, the detonation, and its after-effects. Shelter types were: expedience, personal or family, community, multipurpose, and hidden.Usually, an expedience fallout shelter was a trench with a strong roof buried under three feet of earth. The two ends of the trench had ramps or entrances at right angles to the trench so that gamma rays could not enter. To make the roof waterproof in case of rain, a plastic sheet was buried a few inches below the surface and held down with rocks or bricks.A fallout shelter built in the corner of a basement was the least expensive type, and it supposedly offered substantial protection. In many plans, concrete blocks provided the walls. An open doorway and vents near the floor provided ventilation. The shelter's entrance was constructed with a sharp turn to reduce radiation intensity. According to civil defense authorities, a concrete block basement shelter could be built as a do-it-yourself project for $150 to $200 at the time. Exactly how much protection it actually afforded was an open question. Civil Defense suggested plans for such a structure in basements, converted cisterns, or other below-ground sites. Even four feet of earth or a couple of feet of concrete would reduce the level of gamma-ray radiation that would reach the family in an underground shelter.Ventilation in the shelter was provided by a hand-cranked blower attached by a pipe to a filter mechanism on the surface. By turning the crank, the shelter would be ventilated with fresh air filtered to keep out radioactive particles. More elaborate plans suggested installing an electrical generator to provide all the comforts of home. Some custom built-in-place shelters were described as buried several feet underground somewhere in one's yard, with either tunnel access from a basement or a double-entry area through hatches in the yard.Many shelters built during the 1960s were not designed well. They might block radiation, but were not built to hold people long enough for the threat to dissipate, because they lacked air-handling and waste-disposal systems. Earth is an excellent thermal insulator, and over several weeks of habitation, a shelter temperature would rise merely by the occupants' body heat. Without good ventilation, the occupants could suffer heat exhaustion or suffocation.It was recommended that inhabitants plan to remain sheltered full time for at least two weeks following a nuclear blast, then work outside for gradually increasing amounts of time, to four hours a day at three weeks. Typical work supposedly was to sweep or wash fallout into shallow trenches to decontaminate the area. It was recommended that occupants sleep in a shelter for several months.One of the few government shelters actually built from scratch was the Los Altos, California municipal fallout shelter, constructed in 1962. The Los Altos facility was 25-by-48-feet, equipped to sleep at least 96 persons, and rested about 15 feet below the surface. It was maintained by the city of Los Altos for years. Most shelters were smaller, designed to protect the family, and placed in the back yard. During that era, the government surveyed tens of thousands of large buildings in cities, and designated some of them as shelters, stocking them with canned water and food.Depending on the amount of money that one was prepared to spend, many items of equipment and supplies were recommended. They included a battery-powered radio, lanterns, sleeping bags and cots, Geiger counter, chemical toilet and waste holding tanks/waste disposal bags, heating system and fuel tank, air circulation system or air filtering systems, or bottled air, electrical generator, firearms (to discourage intruders), and communications hardware. Recommended supplies included a variety of canned goods or foodstuffs, bottled drinking water or water storage drums, first-aid kits, reading material, recreational materials, cleaning supplies, extra clothing, and writing materials.What is nuclear fallout?Nuclear fallout is radioactive dust created when a nuclear weapon detonates. The explosion vaporizes any material within its fireball. Much of that material is exposed to neutrons from the explosion, absorbs them, and becomes radioactive. When that material condenses in the cloud, it forms dust and light sandy material that resembles ground pumice. The fallout emits gamma rays. Much of that highly radioactive material then falls to earth, subjecting anything to gamma radiation — a significant hazard. Gamma particles are responsible for the great majority of illnesses associated with nuclear explosions. Too much direct contact with gamma rays can injure or kill, and cause such subsequent health problems as cancer. Gamma particles emit most of their radiation quickly, and during the first few hours and days following an attack, they should be avoided as much as possible.Why were fallout shelters built?During the Cold War, a period of great international tension, Americans felt threatened by the possibility of a nuclear war and sought ways to survive an attack.Fallout shelters entered the American consciousness and vocabulary in 1949 when President Harry Truman made it publicly known that the Soviet Union had detonated their first atomic bomb, ushering in an era when the United States faced the fact that it had lost its nuclear autonomy. That introduced the world to the real possibility of nuclear war between the two superpowers. Long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles made that threat real. In the late 1940s and 1950s, government officials believed that most urban dwellers could escape nuclear attacks by evacuating from their cities. Confident that they would have enough warning time, most communities prepared evacuation plans.Fear of nuclear war grew throughout the 1950s with the development of the hydrogen bomb by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Early in the Atomic Age, the United States government concluded that it could not shelter every American citizen from a nuclear war.The Eisenhower administration expressed little interest in shelters until 1957, when the Gaither Report was released in the U.S. The report was the culmination of an effort to assess the relative nuclear capability and civil defense efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union. The report concluded that the United States would soon be surpassed in all categories of nuclear weaponry and that civil defense preparations in the U.S.S.R. were well ahead of American efforts.Public response to the report was an upsurge in interest about fallout shelters. By the late 1950s, officials of the Eisenhower administration believed that they had a realistic idea of how difficult it would be to survive a nuclear bomb blast, and was actively promoting the construction of fallout shelters as part of the civil defense program. Plans were drawn up. From 1958 onward, the Office of Civil Defense not only promoted home shelters but also published a collection of manuals that showed Americans how to build home shelters.During the Kennedy administration, America saw a rise in international tensions, and Kennedy's advocacy of shelters as part of the American response to two anxious standoffs with Moscow. The first was in 1961 when the Soviets built the Berlin Wall and the second was the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. President Kennedy, believing the lives of families not directly hit in a nuclear attack could still be saved if they could take shelter, endorsed the construction of fallout shelters.In the summer of 1961, Kennedy asked Congress for more than $100 million for public fallout shelters and home-based imminent nuclear danger alarm systems. At the time of the Berlin Wall, a majority of Americans believed World War III would occur within five years. Anxiety in the United States rose after Soviet premiere Nikita Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would resume testing atomic weapons at once, ending a three-year moratorium. By 1962, most officials began to realize that evacuation plans were unrealistic, owing to the large number of people who would have to evacuate, and placed a greater importance on public shelters instead.American's uncertainties about the bomb quieted during the mid-1960s. As arms-control talks and a limited nuclear test ban proceeded, tensions eased. Plans for building additional public shelters were postponed. Shelters were converted into wine cellars, mushroom gardens, recreation rooms, or storage areas. The remaining public underground quarters are relics of the Cold War era.
A Brief (and Bleak) History of Building Fallout Shelters in American Homes
When I was little, my aunt and uncle briefly owned a home with a fallout shelter in the backyard. I remember shining a flashlight down into the entrance to the underground bunker, wondering what relics lay undisturbed below the concrete and dirt. A mix of trepidation and a very reasonable hard pass by the adults present prevented me from ever descending the ladder to the Cold War-era dugout. But that quick peek with my flashlight imparted in me a lasting fascination with American bomb shelters.
While today’s obsession with mid-century modern and Atomic Age designs rages on, some vintage house hunters may be lucky enough to snag a place with a rare element hidden beneath the surface: a fallout shelter. Fallout shelters came to be a safety feature in many 1950s and s homes in America for a few reasons.
During wartimes, soldiers and civilians have sought protection below for assaults from above. For instance, many recall The Blitz in London during World War II, which caused civilians to seek shelter in the London Underground stations from German bombs dropped from the sky. Toward the end of the war in 1945, the United States ordered the detonation of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the utter destruction of the cities and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Soon, through survivors’ testimonies, everyone on earth understood the devastating consequences of these weapons.
Fallout Shelters - History
The two most common fallout shelter signs are shown above. The FS1 which is a 14 by 20 inch aluminum sign and the FS2 which is a 10 by 14 inch galvanized steel sign. Both have flat black and yellow reflective paint. The Fallout Shelter Sign Posting Handbook lists the FS 1 as an exterior sign and the FS 2 as an interior sign but both were posted on the exteriors of buildings with shelters. All DOD OCD issue signs have "Not To Be Reproduced Or Used Without Department Of Defense Permission." at the bottom of the sign. The paper adhesive backed sign (see below) also has the DOD FS No. 2 number designation at the bottom of the sign.
Information from DOD OCD 1962 Annual Report
During FY 1962 the shelter marking program consisted primarily of procurement actions for fallout shelter signs.
During the year, 400,000 aluminum outside and 1,000,000 inside fallout shelter signs were procured at a cost of $699,800. These were shipped to 53 Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Yards and Docks field offices for distribution to the various States and localities and eventual installation in approved public fallout shelters.
The signs are standard Fallout Shelter signs as shown in the adjoining column. The signs which indicate shelter capacity are colored black and yellow and are indentical in appearance for both inside and outside marking. Aluminum signs are used outside and steel signs are used inside of shelters. The procedure for marking shelters was as follows: (1) placement by the architect engineer contractor of a small OCD black and yellow pressure sensitive sticker on shelters meeting prescribed requirements, (2) procurement of officials of the shelter owner's signiture on the license agreement and (3) installation of official Fallout Shelter signs by the Army Corps of Engineers or the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks.
The following table summarized the FY 1962 procurement of activity by sign manufacturer, type and size of sign, number of signs and cost of signs.
Here is the link to original page 12 from the 1962 DOD OCD Annual Report. DODOCD1962AnnualReptPage12.pdf Thank You Frank Blazich for providing this scan from the 1962 DOD OCD Annual Report!
The Six Points Of The Shelter Sign
Mr. Blazich also sent me an image from a DOD OCD Region 3 Newsletter. It's Volume 1 No. 2 March 1963. On this page there is a paragraph written as follows.
|THE SHELTER SIGN. How many really understand the real significance of those black and yellow markers? There are six points to the shelter sign. They signify: 1. Shielding from radiation 2. Food and water 3. Trained leadership 4. Medical supplies and aid 5. Communications with the outside world 6. Radiological monitoring to determine safe areas and time |
for return home. This was pointed out in a recent statement by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense Steuart L. Pittman. It is an image we should leave with the public at every opportunity, for in it there is hope rather than despair. DIAL F. SWEENEY, REGIONAL DIRECTOR
Before seeing this I had no idea that the shelter sign "points" had ever been assigned any meaning. I have never seen the statement by Mr. Pittman mentioned in the paragraph in any other document that I have but since this is a DOD OCD Regional Newsletter I think it's probably a good source to cite. I guess it's something they never really followed up on as a promotional effort.
The original document of the Region 3 Newsletter image file. DODOCDReg3NewsletterVol1No2.jpg
Thanks again to Mr. Blazich for this image!
Standard Fallout Shelter Signs section from Posting Fallout Shelter Signs Handbook. Civil Defense Publication, FG-C-8.1 June 1964 Section D Describing Fallout Shelter Signs.
For full fallout shelter sign posting booklet downloads see below.
Fallout Shelter Sign Posting Instruction Booklets
Adhesive Backed Paper Fallout Shelter Signs
There were also 9 versions of the 7 by 9.75 inch adhesive backed paper signs. The paper signs were also flat black and reflective yellow. The above left image is a scan from the DOD OCD Posting Fallout Shelter Signs booklet supplement FG-C-8.1A dated January 1970. The supplement says these signs can be used in lieu of the Type II interior metal shelter signs under certain conditions. The supplement also says the adhesive signs are intended primarily for interior marking, although in the event of a declared emergeny, they can be used for both interior and exterior marking of all available shelters. The adhesive backed paper signs are not mentioned in the FG-C-8.1 booklet dated June 1964. I belive the paper signs were issued a bit later than the original metal signs. I have a package of paper signs and the instruction cardboard backing of the package has a 7/67 date on it.
Fallout Shelter Sign Adhesive Overlays
Fallout Shelter signs came with adhesive overlays to mark capacity or more clearly point out the shelter locations. These are described in Section D of the Posting Fallout Shelter Signs Handbook linked above. Shown below are some examples of overlays from leftover pieces of overlay sets I have that came with shelter signs I have. I do have some complete sheets of overlays but they are packed up inside a case of shelter signs that I have in my collection. The "capacity" circles were for adding capacity markings to the smaller FS 2 sign above. There were also Spanish and Samoan overlays as pointed out in the Fallout Shelter Sign Posting Handbook (see link to Handbook scans above.)
Fallout Shelter "Marked and Stocked" Decals
These small decals were also used. They measure about 1-5/8 by 2-3/4 inches and are water transfer decals. I presume they were ususally put on windows or doors at the front entrances of buildings. I have never seen any still in place in person though.
Fallout Shelter Sign And The Radiation Symbol
The fallout shelter triangle symbol is often confused with the international radiation symbol for obvious reasons (see image below). The radiation symbol goes back to just after World War II. For a history of the radiation symbol (Trefoil) see Oak Ridge Associated Universities Health Physics Museum Page here. When I look at the radiation trefoil I see 3 "fan blades" radiating from the center, however, the fallout shelter triangle emblem has always looked to me like 3 triangular "arrows" pointing down instead of fan blades radiating out from the center.
History Of The Fallout Shelter Sign Article
Bill Geerhart put together an excellent article about the History of the Fallout Shelter Sign (I wish I had the time and could afford to research stuff like this) where he cites the "very first sign unveiling ceremony at the Westchester County Building in White Plains, New York at 148 Martine Avenue on October 4, 1961. Check out his article f you have time. He even interviewed the man was in charge of developing the sign.
A Couple Of Fallout Shelter Signs In Downtown Dallas.
Old Dallas Library Building
George Allen Courts Building
Shelter Sign At Rear Loading Dock.
Shelter Sign At Entry Of Courts Bldg.
Here are a couple of shelter signs in downtown Dallas. The old Dallas Public Library is a classic mid-century modern work with a shelter sign next to the loading dock door at the rear of the building. The George Allen Courts Building has the highest capacity of any shelter sign I have ever seen. The capacity on the sign is 28,850! Click on any photo to see a larger version.
Some Examples Of Non-Civil Defense Issue Fallout Shelter Signs
Company Made Fallout Shelter Signs From Textile Mills
This image and caption are from CD publication number FG-F-3.30 January 1970 "Civil Defense in the Textile, Apparel and Related Industries." This book has info and various photos from several textile mills in Alabama. According to the book the Langdale and Shawmut mills operated by West Point-Pepperell had this type of shelter sign designating different areas in the mills as fallout shelters. The book shows how the West Point company had an extensive company civil defense program. I have never seen this type of sign anywhere else so I believe the company must have had them made.
I got the sign in the above photo from an ebay seller in May of 2011 who informed me that it came from the Fairfax textile mill in Alabama. Obviously it's the exact same type of sign pictured in the FG-F-3.30 publication mentioned above. The sign measures 12 by 16 inches. The seller stated the following when I inquired about where the sign came from. "My husband wanted me to tell you that it's not the Langdale or Riverview or Lanett Mills. It's the Fairfax Mill and it's actually being torn down." The Fairfax mill isn't mentioned in the FG-F-3.30 book but I believe it was operated by the West Point company like the other mills mentioned in the book. The mills were loacated in what is now Valley Alabama.
Company Made Sign From Steel Mill
Brian Abbott of Parkersburg, West Virginia sent me photos of this sign in 2014. He said it measures 14 by 24 inches and is procelain on heavy steel sheet. It is from a steel mill but he did know which mill it came from. Thank You Brian for taking the time to send the photos of this unique sign.
Paper Fallout Shelter Signs
I got these paper signs from an ebay seller around 2004 or so. They are adhesive backed, are flat yellow and black but the yellow is non-reflective. The larger sign measures 9-1/2 by 8-3/8 inches. The smaller sign measures 9-1/2 by 4-1/2 inches. If I remember correctly the seller told me they were from an air force base, for what that's worth.
CD Booklets Referenced for this page.
1. DOD OCD Handbook of Instructions For Posting Fallout Shelter Signs FG-C-8.1 June 1964
2. DOD OCD Handbook of Instructions For Posting Fallout Shelter Signs Supplement FG-C-8.1A January 1970.
3. DOD OCD 1962 Annual Report, Page 12.
4. DOD OCD Region 3 Newsletter, March 1963.
Fallout shelters: Cold War history in your neighborhood
At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, the District of Columbia prepared hundreds of fallout shelters. However, since the capital was a primary target in the event of nuclear war and most shelters were located downtown, the city’s fallout shelters could not have saved Washingtonians in a direct attack.
Had a nuclear bomb detonated over Washington during the early 1960s, most of Washington’s 760,000 residents would be dead, even those who made it to a fallout shelter. An SS-4 missile &mdash the type deployed to Cuba during the missile crisis &mdash would have left a 1.5 mile radius of complete destruction.
Fallout shelters only protect occupants from fallout&mdashthe deadly radioactive dust resulting from a nuclear detonation&mdashbut not the blast itself. Nevertheless, scores of D.C. shelters were marked by luminescent black and yellow signs, stocked with provisions for hundreds of thousands of people and located in over a thousand public and private buildings throughout the city.
The District of Columbia Office of Civil Defense (DCD) was formed in 1950 to ready the American capital for nuclear disaster. DCD’s impotence was no secret. In 1956, the DCD director himself called a nuclear attack on Washington “pretty near hopeless.” DCD had few options. Evacuation plans were a fantasy. Blast shelters were uneconomical if not impossible to construct.
Fallout shelters, however, were relatively inexpensive to prepare and could protect Washingtonians from a real threat. That the threat of fallout was irrelevant to D.C. did not matter. In the face of almost certain annihilation should the bombs fall on Washington, the DCD had to do something, and so DCD came to
champion the fallout shelter.
In the midst of the 1961 Berlin Crisis, President John F. Kennedy called for millions of dollars to be allocated for the purpose of locating and marking fallout shelters in existing buildings, stocking the shelters with food and other supplies, and improving air raid signals.
In 1961, D.C. began a citywide shelter survey to locate appropriate shelter spaces, estimating that up to 1.4 million people would need shelter in a daylight attack. Fallout protection is relatively simple to achieve&mdashyou only need a certain mass of material between you and the fallout to protect yourself from radiation.
For this reason, shelters could be located in the basements or cores of preexisting buildings. Since the dangers from fallout could last as long as two weeks, shelters needed to be stocked with commensurate food and water supplies, as well as radiation detection instruments, medical supplies, and sanitation kits.
D.C. opened its first shelter in February of 1962 at 1412 K St NW.
By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, only five fallout shelters were ready in the city, including one at Union Station. But by 1963, over 500 were stocked and ready for the Soviet bombs to fall, and in March of 1965, DCD finished its 1,000th fallout shelter.
Shelters were located in every corner of the city, in all types of buildings, including schools, apartments, and churches. Government buildings on the Hill could provide for 36,000 people and were stocked with 280,000 pounds of food. 259 cases of carbohydrate supplement (in lemon or cherry flavor) and 1,393 cases of biscuits were stacked in the old subway tunnel and basement of the Capitol building alone.
Local civil defense officials, however, never reached their goal of providing “one shelter space for each person, wherever he is at whatever the hour.” Since the vast majority of suitable shelters were located downtown, populations on the periphery of the city would be left out in the cold of a nuclear winter&mdashofficials estimated that 92% of the Anacostia population would not be able to find shelter.
By the early 1970s, Americans had lost interest in civil defense. Tough times seemed past with Détente, and the Federal government began phasing out funding for stocking shelters.
In 1974, twenty tons of whole-wheat crackers&mdashfallout shelter rations baked in 1962&mdashwere removed from the streetcar tunnel shelter beneath Dupont Circle and sent to Bangladesh to feed victims of monsoon floods. Supplies elsewhere in the city moldered in forgotten fallout shelters across the city.
Today, fallout shelter signs are the only remains of a decade of civil defense preparations in Washington. Only 5 t0 10% of the now faded signs remain on D.C. facades. The terrifying significance of the sign has since faded as well, but not its historical importance.
Fallout shelter signs in the District of Columbia must be preserved as monuments to one of the most frightening periods in American history and as a reminder of the threats we still face today.
To locate fallout shelters in your neighborhood and learn more about shelter history and preservation, visit District Fallout.
Continue the conversation about urbanism in the Washington region and support GGWash’s news and advocacy when you join the GGWash Neighborhood!
On 21 June 2018, Bethesda Softworks filed suit against developer Behaviour Interactive and Warner Bros Entertainment, alleging copyright infringement and theft of trade secrets over Warner Bros' Westworld mobile game. The lawsuit alleges not just superficial similiarity, but that the released version of the Westworld title contains a bug that was present in a pre-release version of Fallout Shelter, indicating that Behaviour Interactive used source code and assets developed for Fallout Shelter in the development of the Westworld tie-in. Such an action was expressly prohibited by the agreement between Bethesda and Behaviour, which granted exclusive intellectual property rights to all assets used in the development of Fallout Shelter. Α] .
How a Fallout Shelter Ended up at the American History Museum
“We do not want a war. We do not know whether there will be war. But we know that forces hostile to us possess weapons that could destroy us if we were unready. These weapons create a new threat—radioactive fallout that can spread death anywhere.
That is why we must prepare.”
-The Family Fallout Shelter (1959), published by the United States Office of Civil and Defense mobilization
The Andersons of Fort Wayne, Indiana, were preparing for nuclear fallout even before the government disseminated this booklet, which includes building plans for five basic shelters. In 1955, the family of three purchased a steel fallout shelter, complete with four drop-down beds, a chemical pit toilet and a hand cranked air exchanger for refreshing their air supply, and had it installed 15 feet below their front lawn for a total of $1,800.
Neighbors watched as a crane lowered the shelter, resembling a septic tank, into a pit. A few years later, in 1961, there was reportedly more commotion, when, at about the time of the Berlin Crisis, the Andersons had the shelter reinterred. Because it had not been sufficiently anchored, with the area’s water table in mind, it had crept back up until it finally poked through the surface.
Larry Bird, a curator in the division of political history at the National Museum of American History, first heard about the Cold War relic in 1991. Tim Howey, then-owner of the Fort Wayne home, had written a letter to the museum. He had removed some trees and shrubs that had hid the shelter’s access point and a few ventilation pipes for years, and, as a result, was fielding more and more questions from curious passers-by. While Howey was tiring of the attention, there was clearly public interest in the artifact, and he wondered if perhaps the Smithsonian would want it for its collection.
At the time, Bird was on the lookout for objects that would tell interesting stories about science in American life. Some of his colleagues at the museum were preparing an exhibition on the topic and were trying to recruit him to curate a section specifically on domestic life. “I saw the letter, and I thought this is your science in the home right here,” recalls Bird.
The curator had to see the fallout shelter for himself, and in late March of 1991, he made a scouting trip to Fort Wayne. Louis Hutchins, a historian, and Martin Burke, a museum conservator, accompanied him. “When you actually see it and sit in it,” says Bird, “it raises more questions about just what they thought they were doing.”
Martin Enterprises removed the shelter from Tim Howey’s front yard. (Image courtesy of NMAH)
For starters, in the case of nuclear attack, exactly how long was a family expected to stay burrowed in this tiny space? (Bird recently posted a video (embedded below) to YouTube of his first climb down into the shelter, which gives a sense of just how cramped the quarters are.) ”There is enough space for a six-foot person to stand up in the crown of it,” he says.
The curator found most government literature on fallout shelters to be pretty nondescript in terms of how much time had to pass after a bomb struck before it was safe to emerge, but the magazine Popular Science made an estimate. “The best guess now is: Prepare to live in your shelter for two weeks,” declared an article from December 1961. After being in it, Bird says, “That is probably about the length anyone would want to stay in one of these things before they killed each other or ran out of supplies and then killed each other.”
The fallout shelter, the museum team decided, was a powerful symbol of the fear that was so pervasive in the United States during the Cold War. “If you had money and you were frightened enough, it is the kind of thing that you would have invested in,” says Bird. And, in the 1950s and s, many people, like the Andersons, were investing. “The shelter business is booming like a 25-megaton blast,” Popular Science reported.
The shelter was delivered at the museum, where it was on display from the spring of 1994 to this past November, when the “Science in American Life” exhibition closed. (Image courtesy of NMAH)
The National Museum of American History arranged for Martin Enterprises, the company that had originally installed the shelter, to exhume it and haul it to Washington, D.C. on a flatbed. (As it turned out, the company did it for free.) “Some people thought that it would be so corroded. But you have to go along and do the job to find out,” says Bird. “It turned out it was fine.”
Until this past November, the family fallout shelter was on display in the museum’s long-running “Science in American Life” exhibition. A window was cut into the side of the double-hulled structure, so that visitors could peer inside. The museum staged it with sleeping bags, board games, toothpaste and other supplies from the era to suggest what it might have looked like when its owners had readied it for an emergency.
After his involvement in the acquisition, Bird started to get calls to let him know about and even invite him to other fallout shelters. “There are many, many more,” he says. “I imagine that the suburbs in Virginia and Maryland are just honeycombed with this kind of stuff.”
* For more about disaster shelters, readSmithsonian staff writer Abigail Tucker’s story on a recent boom in the luxury bomb shelter market.
These pictures show how cozy fallout shelters were perfect for the 1950s nuclear family
A family fallout shelter in the 1950s. (Smithsonian)
L ast week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists made it known we are officially “30 seconds closer to midnight.” Their warning, a reference to the 70-year-old Doomsday Clock, which was adjusted Thursday to reflect statements made by freshly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump, places “doomsday” at 2 1/2 minutes away. It’s the closest the clock has been to midnight since the government started testing thermonuclear bombs in 1953, when bomb shelters were commonplace.
In fact, commercially produced family-size fallout shelters were a feature of many suburban backyards. These apocalypse-ready rooms were engineered to fit cozily beneath lawns and patio furniture, and their sales fueled a cottage industry catering to the midcentury Boy Scout mentality. The Federal Civil Defense Administration (later the Office of Civil Defense), which was formed in 1950 to prepare civilians for nuclear attack, dispersed information for a mostly suburban audience (it was assumed cities would be toast), initially emphasizing evacuation before settling on fallout shelters as a viable recourse for survival.
In a letter published in the September 1961 issue of Life magazine, President Kennedy even urged Americans to install personal fallout shelters.
Of course these structures would have offered almost zero protection in the case of actual nuclear attack. But the Cold War was all about perception, and deception, and this was one lie a lot of people were more than happy to believe.
What the government didn’t mention about fallout shelters
B efore the mushroom cloud comes the fireball. The bright flash of light is the first manifestation of a major nuclear event. Then a shock wave radiates five megatons of toxic blast moving at 2,000 miles an hour. The two square miles around ground zero would be flattened, steel-frame buildings bent perpendicularly.
In the hours and weeks following, radiation would settle from the sky in great clouds of dust known as fallout. By then, survivors should have found shelter and prepared to stay put for two weeks. Of course, according to a 1966 Office of Civil Defense study, surviving those two weeks with your sanity intact was its own significant challenge. Eighty-seven participants in the experiment of nearly 500 people defected, nearly two-thirds of whom left in the first six hours of confinement. Most cited “too crowded” as the reason.
In the early 1960s, the Department of Defense instituted the fallout shelter as the main option for civil defense, with President John F. Kennedy famously calling for all good citizens to build their own.
Part of the initiative was practical — without knowledge of a target’s location, community and private fallout shelters theoretically protected more lives. On the other hand, amidst a nation already reeling from anxiety, empty, waiting fallout shelters sat as unused tombs of claustrophobic imprisonment. In a September 1961 special issue on fallout shelters, The New York Times ran a piece titled “How to Be Evaporated in Style,” which criticized Kennedy’s blunt warnings. “If you start with speeches that scare the daylights out of people before you have a clear policy and the means of carrying it out, you are asking for trouble.”
Still, as the government ramped up practical preparations for public fallout shelters, the psychological consequences of shelter living went mostly unaddressed.
The Kennedy administration initiated the National Fallout Shelter Survey in 1961, which located potential fallout spaces in large structures that could house 50 people or more. In cities, shelters were allocated in the cores of skyscrapers, the basements of banks, damp chambers beneath the Brooklyn Bridge — not unlike the infamous meat locker of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. The goal of the survey, according to research prepared for the Office of Civil Defense, was expediency: “to appraise minimal survival conditions on public fallout shelters as presently equipped and stocked with emergency supplies.” By 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers had identified more than 17,000 New York City shelter spaces for accommodating roughly 12 million people.
Private research groups attempted to study the psychological implications of fallout shelters, some with allocated living space as small as 8 square feet, by comparing findings of isolation living in submarines, polar environments, or POW camps. One such 1960 symposium, called “Human Problems in the Utilization of Fallout Shelters,” suggested different demographics — the young, the elderly, those of wealthier socioeconomic background, those of higher intelligence — may be more adversely impacted by fallout shelter life. Depending on shelter lighting and noise, people may experience visual and auditory hallucinations, not to mention difficulty concentrating and lower thresholds to pain. Time and again, the chief concern of such investigations was the potentially damaging consequences of being immediately cut off from outside communication, with anxiety translating to aggression, depression, regression, or possibly withdrawal.
The symposium provided tips to alleviate these risks. Experts favored group shelters over private home shelters, for instance people could be assigned tasks, form committees, and even communicate with other nearby shelters for updates. Trained leadership would know basic first aid and be empowered to equitably distribute food and supplies. Families and groups within public shelters might even receive tools or DIY kits to build their own spaces within the environment, thus fostering a sense of ownership. Such tactics might lessen anxieties that could threaten a group, such as people leaving the shelter before it is considered safe.
H owever, another study of family sheltering published in the Archives of General Psychiatry conceded, simply, that “if survival is the reward for prolonged stay in an underground fallout shelter, most individuals would be able to tolerate the situation.” The researchers based their opinions on an experiment a Houston, Texas, radio station had conducted: A family of four elected to live in a shelter for the requisite two weeks. Upon the stunt’s conclusion, the mother, “attractive, verbally expressive, and…clearly the family leader” said, “We leave here with the personal knowledge, that if and when it becomes necessary for our family, or any other American family to seek refuge, for personal safety in a fallout shelter — it can be done!”
It’s an attitude the Western world needed amid low Cold War morale and genuine fear. In Britain, some newsreels even advertised shelters under the guise of fun and play, as places that “guaranteed the approval of the juveniles.” It didn’t work. A 1963 study of New York schoolchildren found that 70% mentioned war and communicated concern for the future. Some specifically addressed anxieties about fallout shelters. One concerned child predicted in the future “there wouldn’t be any schools or houses, and they would live in the ground.”
In the meantime, the Office of Defense focused on the facts and measurables of saving lives. Psychology was for the aftermath, an incidental risk on an already long list of “ifs.”
By April 1969, the National Fallout Shelter Survey had located nearly 195,000 public spaces that could shelter 187 million people throughout the country. Then defense services shifted their attention to issues of urban unrest. The shelters remained, gaping and waiting.
The D-I-Y Fallout Shelter
In the 1950s and 1960s, families planning for the apocalypse often took a homespun approach.
Between climate change, the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons around the world, and the pervasive sense of political instability, there’s been a sharp uptick in recent years in the sale of luxury bomb shelters for the very wealthy. Some shelters feature gyms, swimming pools, and underground gardens. They’re a far cry from the classic fallout shelters of the 1950s and 1960s. As the design historian Sarah A. Lichtman writes, back then, families planning for the apocalypse often took a more homespun approach.
In 1951, with the Cold War emerging in the aftermath of World War II, President Harry S. Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration to provide protection for citizens in case of nuclear war. One option the government considered was building shelters all over the country. But that would have been incredibly expensive. Instead, the Eisenhower administration called for citizens to take responsibility for protecting themselves in case of nuclear attack.
A plan for an underground air raid shelter via Getty
In November of 1958, Lichtman writes, Good Housekeeping published an editorial titled “A Frightening Message for a Thanksgiving Issue,” telling readers that, in case of attack, “your only hope of salvation is a place to go.” It urged them to contact the government for free plans to make a shelter at home. Fifty thousand people did so.
As Cold War tensions grew in the early days of the Kennedy administration, the government distributed 22 million copies of The Family Fallout Shelter, a 1959 booklet offering step-by-step instructions for building a shelter in a family basement or in a hole dug in the backyard. “The desire to protect the imperiled home, long a bulwark of American frontierism and self-defense, now translated to staving off the physical and psychological devastation of nuclear attack,” Lichtman writes.
Lichtman’s thesis is that the idea of a D-I-Y shelter fit with postwar enthusiasm for home improvement projects, particularly in the growing suburbs. A typical basement shelter only required common materials, things that could be found at any hardware store: concrete blocks, ready-mix mortar, wooden posts, board sheathing, and six pounds of nails. Companies even sold kits including everything needed for the project. Often, it was presented as a good father-son activity. As Lichtman notes:
Fathers engaging in do-it-yourself were deemed to set “a fine example” for boys, especially at a time when society considered teenagers at high risk of juvenile delinquency and homosexuality.
Only three percent of Americans actually built fallout shelters during the height of the Cold War. Still, that represented millions of people. Today, shelter building seems to be a project for a much narrower segment of the population. That reflects much-reduced tensions over the possibility of a nuclear attack. But perhaps it also shows that, as inequality grows, even the hope of surviving apocalypse is now a luxury, rather than something society can expect middle-class families to be able to provide for themselves.
Storm shelters are usually made out of concrete or steel, but recent technological developments have shown that fiberglass is becoming very popular. Older shelters tend to rust or corrode after many decades of being exposed to the worst of the elements. Mildew is also a large factor in underground shelters. Fiberglass is mildew resistant and usually guaranteed not to rust or corrode. Advances have also been made with new steel and concrete models. Many companies sell warranties with their shelters promising that they will not leak, rust, or float.