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Surviving a Nuclear Attack with Spam, and Other Images from Cold War Fallout Shelters

Photograph of a display of survival supplies for the well-stocked fallout shelter, ca.1961.

A display of essential survival supplies for a well-stocked fallout shelter, c.1961. (Photo: NARA)

During the Cold War, as the arms race between Soviet Russia and the United States escalated, the perceived threat of nuclear attack became increasingly heightened. In response, the U.S. developed procedures to protect its citizens should the worst happen. In 1956, the National Emergency Alarm Repeater—NEAR—warning siren device was implemented to alert citizens to a nuclear attack. Students were drilled in “duck and cover“ practices at schools. Books with titles such as Nuclear War Survival Skills were issued. And the only means of protection against radiation in the event of such a catastrophe was a fallout shelter.

Designs for fallout shelters appeared in pamphlets, subway advertisements and displays at civil defense fairs.  President Kennedy even got involved. In September 1961, the same month that the Soviets resumed testing nuclear weapons, Life magazine published a letter from the President advocating the use of fallout shelters. Rather terrifyingly, it was printed over an image of a mushroom cloud.

But that was just one of the many interesting graphical representations of the threat of annihilation. Below, check out our collection of fallout shelter designs and photographs that show just how people in the 1950s and 1960s tried to prepare for the unthinkable.    

1958 This is a photograph of a drawing of a proposed family fallout shelter designed to accommodate four to six people.

A 1958 drawing of a family fallout shelter designed to accommodate four to six people. (Photo: NARA)

A 1959 Civil Defense Bus/Subway Poster

A Civil Defense bus/subway poster from 1959. (Photo: Public Domain/Courtesy Civil Defense Museum)

c. 1960. Fallout shelter built by Louis Severance adjacent to his home near Akron, Mich., includes a special ventilation and escape hatch, an entrance to his basement, tiny kitchen, running water, sanitary facilities, and a sleeping and living area for the family of four. The shelter cost about $1,000. It has a 10-inch reinforced concrete ceiling with thick earth cover and concrete walls. Severance says, 'Ever since I was convinced what damage H-Bombs can do, I've wanted to build the shelter. Just as with my chicken farm, when there's a need I build it."

A fallout shelter in Michigan, c. 1960, for a family of four. It had a 10-inch reinforced concrete ceiling and concrete walls. (Photo: NARA)

Photograph of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization exhibit at a local civil defense fair. ca. 1960.

“See the Family Fallout Shelter”: the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization exhibit at a local civil defense fair. ca. 1960. (Photo: NARA)

1962. fallout shelter sign in a doorway at Columbus High School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Directions to a fallout shelter at a high school in Boston, 1962. (Photo: NARA)

A display for family shelters from the 1960s

A display for different types of family shelters from the 1960s. (Photo: Public Domain/Courtesy Civil Defense Museum)

1963. a fallout shelter supplies being distributed to nuns at the Villa Augustina Academy in Goffstown, New Hampshire. The nuns in the photograph include Mother Wilfred and Mother Superior Liguori.

Fallout shelter supplies being distributed to nuns in Goffstown, New Hampshire, 1963. (Photo: NARA)

1950s his photograph depicts a woman as she takes an inventory of supplies for her household's fallout shelter.

A woman takes an inventory of supplies for her household’s fallout shelter, c. 1950s. A tub of potato chips sits under the table. (Photo: NARA)

An artist's rendition of a temporary basement fallout shelter, ca.1957.

An artist’s rendition of a temporary basement fallout shelter, ca.1957. (Photo: NARA)

 Photograph of a basement family fallout shelter that includes a 14-day food supply that could be stored indefinitely, a battery-operated radio, auxiliary light sources, a two-week supply of water, and first aid, sanitary, and other miscellaneous supplies and equipment, ca.1957.

A basement family fallout shelter, including a 14-day non-perishable food supply, a battery-operated radio, auxiliary light sources, a two-week supply of water, and first aid, sanitary, and other miscellaneous supplies and equipment, ca.1957. (Photo: NARA)