Entrance to the TAKE COVER! section of the exhibit.

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.


Father and children climbing into a small box shelter.

Family Bomb Shelter, 1952. A Wisconsin family inside their new bomb shelter. This image was used to illustrate a newspaper article on a Milwaukee firm that had gone into the business of building fallout shelters. WHI 1941

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.

"Fall Out Shelter" panel

Fallout Shelter (1959), museum object
Based on a fallout shelter 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.

"Portable Toilet" panel

Portable Toilet and Trashcan (1960), museum object
Toilet made in Japan, trashcan 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 trashcan until they could be buried outside. The fallout shelter included an 18-inch-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 Wisconsin Historical Society added them to its collections. The Sobel's shelter was recreated from measured drawings and photographs of the original structure.

"Students in a Classroom" panel

Students in a Classroom (1957), photograph
Probably at the Emerson Elementary School, Madison, Wisconsin, 1957. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Visual Materials. WHI (X3)49914
School Desk (1955), object
Used at an elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin, ca. 1955-1965. Schoolchildren 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 (1961), museum object
Worn by Virginia Martinson, South St. Paul, Minnesota, 1961-1963. Identification bracelets were sold to schoolchildren 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, Minnesota, area to a cottage near Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Source: Virginia Martinson.

"Man's Hat" panel

Man's Hat (1945), museum object
Worn from 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), museum object
Used from 1930-1939, a blanket like this was featured 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' (1961), magazine cover
Cover of "Life" magazine, 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.


Entrance to the PROTECTING THE PUBLIC! section of the exhibit.

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.

Traffic Sign (1960), museum object
Possibly used in Walworth County, Wisconsin, ca. 1960.
Signs such as this one were placed along designated evacuation routes.
Fallout Shelter Sign (1962), museum object
Posted at the Wisconsin Historical Society Headquarters Building, 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), museum object
Evacuation Route road sign, installed from 1955-1957, that was used to direct Milwaukee, Wisconsin, residents out of town in the event of a potential nuclear bomb detonation. (Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1996.121.1). Read more about this object >
'Evacuation of Madison: What To Do' (1950), pamphlet
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.
Water Storage Drum (1962), museum object
Stocked at the public fallout shelter at the Wisconsin Historical Society Headquarters Building, 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 (1962), museum object
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 (1962), museum object
Stocked at the public fallout shelter at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1962. This kit, which included over 30 different medical supplies, was designed to serve 50-65 occupants.
Fallout Shelter Sign (1962), museum object
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 (1961), museum object
Stocked at Civil Defense Headquarters, Detroit, Michigan, 1961-1965. Source: Detroit Historical Society.
Megaphone (1955), museum object
Stocked at Civil Defense Headquarters, Detroit, Michigan, 1955-1965. Source: Detroit Historical Society.
Geiger Counters (1958), museum object
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 (ca. 1955), museum object
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 (1962), museum object
Stocked at Dane County's Civil Defense Headquarters, Wisconsin, 1962. This box contains over 3,200 hard and probably flavorless biscuits.