Thursday, October 4, 2012

Survive Fallout (Vintage Fallout Shelters, 1961)

Good morning!

I was flipping through Life earlier this week on Google Books, like you do, and was struck by this September 1961 issue on nuclear fallout. Was this cover a joke? But Life doesn't do joke covers! I sat at my cubicle for a minute scrutinizing the pictured man's plastic haz-mat suit. It's not that I don't/didn't understand that the threat of nuclear war was a very real fifty years ago, it's that it's hard for me to imagine someone like my dad in 1961 picking up this magazine and going "Oh! I need to read this in case something horrible happens with Russia". And yet I'm sure that's what happened! Do you see this issue comes complete with a letter from President Kennedy?

Inside, indeed, Kennedy addresses us from the 1961 White House:

The president of the United States is saying you should carefully consider the special report on what to do in case of nuclear fallout. I guarantee he doesn't do that for Folger's coffee advertisements or the Super Bowl! This is serious business. The solemnly optimistic tone of "You could be among the 97% to survive if you follow the advice on these pages" is also weird.

The article includes three different scenarios for constructing your own fallout shelter ( a "home" shelter versus a "public" shelter, as you would find in high schools and government buildings). I can't get over how Popular Mechanics or Better Homes and Gardens matter-of-fact the text is. They describe how to create a space that's supposed to be used in case of TOTAL WAR against the Russians, NUCLEAR WAR, as mechanically as if it was a bookshelf that turns into a backgammon table, or an outdoor barbecue pit.

Shelter #1 is in the pre-existing basement of your home. The wall with the metal cans acts as a "baffle wall" and blocks radiation...according to the text, you don't have to worry about the other sides of the shelter because "radiation...behaves like light and does not go around corners". Good to know. The instructions list the main drawback as being the potentiality that the house itself is blasted or burned down, in which case an outside-the-home shelter would be more practical.  How could you innocently sit around playing ping pong in your once carefree basement rec room, knowing that one fourth of the basement might very well be your post-nuclear home for a few months/years? It's spooky stuff, people! (Average cost, $200, btw [$1441.20 in 2010 money]. Not including the $8.95 suggested price of a camping toilet [~ $65 in 2010 money]. No, I do not want to think about it). 

Shelter #2 is the aforementioned outside variety. The intertitle describes it as "Big Pipe in the Backyard Under Three Feet of Earth", and I think that pretty much gives you a general idea of the structure. More spacious than the last set-up, this shelter is made out of galvanized corrugated steel, and has to be subcontracted rather than completely do-it-yourself, because someone has to dig out the hole for the tube and cover it back up safely. Costs for this shelter run $700 for parts ($5044.21 in 2010) and $150 for the labor to get it installed ($1080.90 in 2010). My dad would be grumbling at this point that there'd BETTER be a nuclear war, because otherwise he just spent almost six grand on a buried, useless tube in the backyard.  Maybe later, as the threat of an arms race diminished, you could use this as an in-law's apartment? Guest house?

The fanciest of the three is this above-ground-but-fortified bunker model. This one "provides almost complete protection against fallout" and would double as a really cool kid's clubhouse right out of the movies if, again, the necessity for it proves less than vital. Estimated cost? $700 if you do everything but the concrete floor yourself (again, $5044.21 in 2010), but if you get a contractor to build the whole thing for you, you may be looking at $2,195 ($15817.20 in 2010 [!!!!!!!!!!]). Still, the grass roof is kind of neat. Did you know you could get an FHA insured loan to build one of these at the time?

Here's a real family demonstrating how one of the professionally built shelters work. Note the stack of board games. Wouldn't it be ironic to be sitting in this underground shelter playing "The Game of Life" and talking about buying cars and houses and having children when you don't know if any of that is possible anymore? DARK, PEOPLE. IT'S DARK.

This family has the best of plans one and three in that they have an above ground shelter that's actually just an annex of their house:

And last but not least, a carefree teenager on the phone, in bobby sox, with a coke in hand, using her family's shelter as a kind of clubhouse. See! What did I say about the clubhouse! All that private space just going to waste?

Have you ever thought about fallout shelters possibly lurking in you or your neighbor's backyard? Which aspect of it seems to most mind boggling to you in 2012? If you didn't get enough Civil Defense for one day, here's a a pretty neat survival manual from around the same time period (Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About Nuclear Attack) and a short film on Living in a Fallout Shelter (part two is also available on Youtube).

Gotta get back to work...have a great (non-nuclear) Thursday and I'll see you tomorrow for Photo Friday!


  1. I want a fallout shelter! I never see any houses on "House Hunters" where a fallout shelter is a selling feature. Do any exist? There isn't much in terms of subterranean building in Southern California - basements, fallout shelters, or otherwise.

    1. That's what I was thinking! I saw a couple on amateur youtube "let's explore the fallout shelter" videos, but none were as full-on as these floor models.

    2. My husband and I just bought a house in Iowa that has a fallout shelter in the basement! It is SO COOL.

  2. So intriguing, aren't they? And yes! Where are they all? I've never run into a single one in my house owning, searching or looking. Hmm.... I'd love to see someone on House Hunters put THAT on their wish lists! Screw the enormous closets and freakin' frackin' man caves! We want fallout shelters!

    1. There's a CRAZY one a guy did in the seventies', and the people bought the house 90% BECAUSE of the complete, underground bomb shelter other-house: (CRAZY!)

  3. Lemme see...I read just last winter an article about a 50's era fallout shelter that was set up as a ranch house underground. I think it was somewhere in Texas? The pics were wonderful. The owner had a "yard" with wrought iron patio furniture, arbors, a pool. As I remember, the outdoor grill vented up through a large "oak tree" to the surface above. The decor was pure 1950's deluxe. Birdy, you are a resourceful gal. Find that article!

  4. Ah! I was built in '78. In Vegas. (This is why you don't want me testifying in your court case as an eyewitness) I found the blog...thevintagemodern.blogspot. Oct 27, 2011. There is a link in the article for further images of this creepy/cool shelter. You'll love it.

    1. YOU WERE RIGHT; I LOVE IT! I can't believe the freakin' patio/pool area and the faux twilight lighting. IT IS KILLING ME. Also, is that a hi-fi or a wet bar hidden in a boulder in the first slide? I DON'T CARE; EITHER WAY IS GOOD. Thanks for sharing!!



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