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"Living Under a Mushroom Cloud: Fear and Hope in the Atomic Age"


After 1949, Americans felt threatened by the prospect of an atomic war with the Soviets and looked for ways to survive a nuclear attack. The federal government created the Federal Civil Defense Administration (later called the Office of Civil Defense) to instruct the public about how to prepare for a nuclear assault.

By the late 1950s, officials of the Eisenhower administration, after having seen the results of numerous atomic bomb tests, had a fairly realistic idea of how difficult it would be to survive a nuclear bomb blast. They continued, however, to disseminate somewhat dubious survival information, primarily to give the American public a sense of hope and control over their own lives. They also believed that a public confident of surviving an atomic war would support the federal government's decision to increase its own atomic arsenal, even though its existence could provoke a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Entrance to the
TAKE COVER! section.

Family fallout shelter Milwaukee, Wisconsin, ca. 1951.

This image was used to illustrate a newspaper article on a Milwaukee firm that had gone into the business of building fallout shelters. Courtesy of the Visual Materials Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. (Whi(X3)33338)


Early in the Atomic Age, the United States government concluded that it could not afford to shelter every American citizen from an atomic war. Instead, through the creation of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, it provided educational materials on how families could protect themselves. At the same time, teachers taught children atomic attack survival techniques at school, including the famous "duck and cover" maneuver. 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.

Atomic attack survival literature of the 1950s and early 1960s was written primarily for a suburban, middle-class audience. Most authors assumed that cities would be atomic bomb targets and that urban dwellers would likely perish. The few urban survivors would flee to suburban communities where they, along with the residents, would have to contend with fallout, radioactive dust and dirt that remained in the air after an atomic blast.

The most common form of recommended protection was a fallout shelter. Most survival manuals assured people that after two weeks they could emerge from their shelters and eventually return to their normal lives. Infrastructures, such as water mains, roads, and electrical wires, were expected to remain undamaged or be easily repairable.

Saving the Family
(fallout shelter,
first view).

Fallout shelter Based on one built in a Racine, Wisconsin home, 1959-1960.

When Paul and Edith Sobel built their home in Racine, they worried that nearby Chicago would be the target of an atomic bomb. Determining that the fallout might drift to their city, the Sobels decided to construct a fallout shelter in their house. They sent away for all the literature the local Civil Defense Office could provide, chose one of the suggested plans, and built the shelter into their basement. The result was a 10'-by-8' room meant to house a family of five for two weeks. It included an 18"-thick cement ceiling, walls of solid concrete block painted a cheerful color, and a second wall or baffle outside the door to protect the occupants from radiation. The Sobels stocked their shelter with supplies recommended in government pamphlets. Most of these supplies remained in the shelter until 1996, when the State Historical Society of Wisconsin added them to its collections. The Sobel's shelter has been recreated here from measured drawings and photographs of the original structure.

Saving the Family
(fallout shelter,
second view).

Portable toilet Made in Japan, 1960, and
Trash can Made by Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, Lebanon, Indiana, 1960.

Human waste disposal was an important issue to consider in a shelter. A portable toilet with plastic bags were the preferred method of collecting the waste. The bags would then be placed in a trash can until they could be buried outside.

Saving the Family
(first panel).

Students in a classroom Probably at the Emerson Elementary School, Madison, Wisconsin, 1957.

Courtesy of the Visual Materials Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society. (Whi(X3)49914)

School desk Used at an elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin, ca. 1955-1965.

School children during the 1950s and early 1960s were taught to save themselves during an atomic attack by ducking under a desk like this one and covering their heads.

Identification bracelet Worn by Virginia Martinson, South St. Paul, Minnesota, 1961-1963.

Identification bracelets were sold to school children and their parents so that their bodies could be identified after an atomic attack. Virginia Martinson purchased a set of them for her family. She also prepared an evacuation plan to move her family quickly and safely out of the St. Paul area to a cottage near Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Courtesy of Virginia Martinson.

Saving the Family
(second panel).

Man's hat 1945-1955.

This was the kind of wide-brimmed hat that the book, How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, recommended for a man to protect himself from the heat flash of an atomic blast.

Blanket 1930-1939.

In an educational film that taught the "duck and cover" technique, children learned to take shelter under a picnic blanket if they were on a picnic during an atomic bombing.

"Civilian Fallout Suit" Cover of Life, September 15, 1961.

As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union grew, President Kennedy urged Americans to build fallout shelters. Shortly afterward, Life magazine dedicated an issue to shelter plans. The civilian fallout suit on the magazine's cover illustrated the measures some Americans were willing to consider to survive an atomic war.


Throughout the Atomic Age, the federal government established public fallout shelters in American cities. These shelters were staffed with trained volunteers and stocked with civil defense equipment and supplies.

Through the late 1940s and 1950s, government officials expected most urban dwellers to escape nuclear attacks by evacuating their cities. Confident of having enough warning time, most communities prepared evacuation plans. In 1962, most officials began to realize that such plans were unrealistic and placed a greater emphasis on public shelters instead.

Protecting the Public
(first view).

Traffic sign Possibly used in Walworth County, Wisconsin, ca. 1960.

Signs such as this one were placed along designated evacuation routes.

Fallout shelter sign Posted at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, ca. 1962.

Although the Society's basement shelter could supposedly house 605 people, it was not stocked with supplies for that many people.

Evacuation route out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin 1961.

Courtesy of the Visual Material Archives, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. (Lot 3424)

"Evacuation of Madison: What to do" Published by the Office of Civil Defense, 1950-1962.

In the 1950s, city officials sent copies of this pamphlet to all Madison residents. Each neighborhood received a different version with clear, detailed instructions for evacuating the city in case of atomic attack. These pamphlets were found in a home in Madison's Nakoma neighborhood. Courtesy of Paul Boyer.

Protecting the Public
(second view).

Water storage drum Stocked at the public fallout shelter at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1962.

When originally placed in the shelter, this drum contained 17 gallons of water. Once shelter occupants drank all the water, the drum was supposed to be reused as a toilet.

Sanitation kit Stocked at the public fallout shelter at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1962.

This kit included a commode seat and liner, toilet paper, sanitary napkins, and a siphoning tube for the water storage drum.

Medical kit Stocked at the public fallout shelter at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1962.

This kit, which included over thirty different medical supplies, was designed to serve fifty to sixty-five occupants.

Fallout shelter sign Posted at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, ca. 1962.

This sign pointed the way to the Society's shelter located in the basement of its headquarters building.

Cot Stocked at Civil Defense Headquarters, Detroit, Michigan, 1961-1965. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.

Megaphone Stocked at Civil Defense Headquarters, Detroit, Michigan, 1955-1965. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.

Geiger counters Stocked at the public fallout shelter at the headquarters of the Federal Highway Commission at Hill Farms, Madison, Wisconsin, 1958-1961.

Geiger counters are used to locate the presence of radiation.

Portable radio Used by Martin Steindler, a member of the Cook County civil defense team, Illinois, ca. 1955.

Shelter leaders were required to keep in touch with the local Civil Defense agency using this type of radio. The agency staff would pass on information, such as environmental conditions and lists of survivors, as well as letting leaders know when the occupants could safely leave. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

Box of survival biscuits Stocked at Dane County's Civil Defense Headquarters, Wisconsin, 1962.

This box contains over 3200 hard and probably flavorless biscuits.

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