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When Bunkers Last In The Backyard Bloom—d
The fallout-shelter craze of 1961
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Most of all, insisted shelter advocates, home shelters were cheap and easy to build. Dr. Libby stirred the hopes of millions of modest wage-earners when he announced in his syndicated series that he had built a shelter in the backyard of his Bel-Air, California, home for a mere thirty dollars. Even the most complicated shelter recommended by the Civil Defense manuals, the double-walled, above-ground concrete shelter, replete with joists, block capping, and toggle joints, could be built “by any enterprising do-it-yourself family” said the editors of Life , who appended to their elaborate homeshelter story—“How You Can Survive Fallout”—a letter from President Kennedy urging Americans to “read and consider seriously the contents of this issue of Life .” The presidentially approved issue bore a cover photograph of a man enveloped in a transparent plastic bag described as a “civilian fallout suit.” Its price was $21.95 and its worth as a radioactive shield, when seriously considered, didn’t amount to much.
In truth, by the end of the long, weary summer, fallout began to look like a supremely ripe opportunity for profitable commerce. In September a rash of “survival stores” erupted around the country. There the home-shelter builder could purchase such items as: “a citizen’s instrument kit” ($20.00) which told you how much radiation your body had absorbed while you waited for the all-clear signal; the Surviv-All, Incorporated, food kit ($8.95), which provided two weeks worth of rations for one; General Mills’s MPF or “multipurpose food”; Nabisco’s seven-pound tins of “survival rations,” which reportedly tasted “like animal crackers”; Mead Johnson’s Nutrament, originally developed as a quick lunch for assembly-line workers; a variety of blowers ($74.00) for forcing fresh air into your shelter; air filters ($55.00) to assure that the fresh air was not radioactive; and a profusion of “lifesaving kits” complete with “anti-radiation” pills and salves which turned out to be the lineal descendants of snake oil and the golden elixir.
Despite all the official calls for cheap do-it-yourself construction, shelter manufacturers, too, began appearing in droves. In July, 1961, there were only forty of them in the country. Two months later, reported the New York Times , one hundred and twenty had governmental approval, and there were hundreds more who did not. Most of them were suburban and small-town contractors prepared to make a fast dollar by installing backyard shelters rather than swimming pools. Others, more ambitious, offered completely prefabricated steel or concrete shelters priced, on the average, at around two thousand dollars. The Armco Steel Company of San Francisco combined prefabrication with do-it-yourself by marketing a shelter whose steel modules could be assembled like the parts of an Erector set. Advertising in the press, sending salesmen door-to-door, setting up their sales models in shopping-center parking lots, the “survival merchants,” as Consumer Reports tartly labeled them, added their own promotional appeals to the national campaign for home fallout shelters. In the autumn virtually every state fair in the country displayed home-shelter models. At the Dallas Fair, the Federal Bomb & Fallout Shelter Company’s thirteenhundred-and-fifty-dollar shelter—billed as “the only precast monolithic concrete shelter approved by the Office of Civil Defense!”—reportedly “outdrew the blue ribbon cattle and the midway rides as a popular attraction.” People peeked into the concrete igloo, wondered, perhaps, what it would be like to live in a tomb for two weeks, and then went home and argued about shelters with family, friends, and neighbors.
To build or not build a shelter—that, by early October, had become the question of the hour. It was discussed in downtown cafeterias, suburban kitchens, country club bars, and roadside taverns. To many pro-shelter Americans it was simply a matter of prudence, “insurance” as President Kennedy had put it even before the Berlin crisis. As one New Jersey dentist explained, he carried an umbrella on a cloudy day, and “the world situation looks pretty cloudy today.” Others expected war any moment and were determined to survive it. “I want to be one of the quarter of the population to escape and be around to build for the future,” a Cambridge, Massachusetts, housewife told a Times reporter. There were patriotic arguments, too. Shelter builders insisted, echoing administration spokesmen, that they were helping to strengthen America. A people protected against fallout would discourage a Soviet attack and enable America to get tough with the Russians without fear of “nuclear blackmail.” The arguments appeared unassailable, and on October 5, President Kennedy weighed in behind them with all the immense prestige of his office. That day he called on Americans to build private shelters for themselves and their families. Protection from radioactive fallout, said the President, “is within reach of every American willing to face the facts and act.”