Last 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.
(L) Peggy Sinskey of Pacific Palisades, CA, entering her family shelter in 1961. / “If we’re not bombed, it’ll make a good den, play room, or dog house.” Los Angeles, 1951. (Los Angeles Public Library)
author: Rian Dundon
Photography editor at Timeline.com