A Brief (and Bleak) History of Building Fallout Shelters in American Homes

published Jul 10, 2020
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fallout shelter

When I was little, my aunt and uncle briefly owned a home with a fallout shelter in the backyard. I remember shining a flashlight down into the entrance to the underground bunker, wondering what relics lay undisturbed below the concrete and dirt. A mix of trepidation and a very reasonable hard pass by the adults present prevented me from ever descending the ladder to the Cold War-era dugout. But that quick peek with my flashlight imparted in me a lasting fascination with American bomb shelters.

While today’s obsession with mid-century modern and Atomic Age designs rages on, some vintage house hunters may be lucky enough to snag a place with a rare element hidden beneath the surface: a fallout shelter. Fallout shelters came to be a safety feature in many 1950s and ‘60s homes in America for a few reasons.

During wartimes, soldiers and civilians have sought protection below for assaults from above. For instance, many recall The Blitz in London during World War II, which caused civilians to seek shelter in the London Underground stations from German bombs dropped from the sky. Toward the end of the war in 1945, the United States ordered the detonation of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the utter destruction of the cities and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Soon, through survivors’ testimonies, everyone on earth understood the devastating consequences of these weapons. 

While the United States and Soviet Union were allies during WWII, the nations’ relationship became fraught after the war. U.S. anxieties skyrocketed when, in 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test, meaning the U.S. was no longer the only nation with weapons capable of mass destruction. 

In response to increased tense relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union, America’s governing bodies and businesses alike reacted with policy and commercial ideas meant to promote safety and preparedness for disaster. Thus, the fallout shelter, or bomb shelter, was born. Prompted by the Soviet Union’s testing of hydrogen bombs, in 1955 the Federal Civil Defense Administration—a group created to deal with civilian safety—instructed U.S. citizens to start constructing fallout shelters. 

As a result, fallout shelters became a widespread phenomenon. President Kennedy encouraged civilians to invest in the structures, and an estimated 200,000 shelters were constructed in homes by 1965. In Washington, D.C., alone, over 1,000 designated shelters were developed. Municipal buildings adapted parking garages and basements for civilian protection. Many businesses specializing in fallout shelter construction marketed the structures for dual use, such as wine cellars or dark rooms. There’s no doubt that companies were exploiting the public’s fear and reaping the financial benefits—and that these structures were a possibility only for those families with the means to build.

Shelters came in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Pods, domes, cylinders, and cubes were popular, and constructed from steel, concrete, fiberglass—even wood. Fallout shelters needed to be equipped with enough food and supplies to theoretically survive a nuclear blast. President Eisenhower’s administration suggested keeping seven days’ worth of food and supplies. These included canned meats (hi, Spam!), peanut butter, cereals, soups, and drink mixes like Tang. Department stores would even display collections of fallout shelter foods as casually as they would stemware and handbags. 

Realistically, none of these precautions would have worked well, anyway. Like seeking refuge from radiation under a classroom desk in the “Duck and Cover” school drills, residential fallout shelters ultimately served as empty and expensive illusions of safety. By the 1970s, Americans became preoccupied with the war in Vietnam, and the fallout shelter craze blended into obscurity. 

Many homes across the United States still have these relics of the bygone Cold War era intact. One family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, shared their time capsule of a shelter on Facebook

When Sandra James put a bid on her home 16 years ago, she didn’t realize it contained a fallout shelter. “It’s not in a readily identifiable location, it’s in a closet in a bedroom that was added onto the house in 1961,” says James’ daughter, Melissa McLean. Since the trap door was concealed, the shelter was easy to miss. 

McLean’s boyfriend, Addison Foskey, shared the now-viral post containing pictures of the shelter. “Once I got down there and started looking around, I was just taken aback by everything,” Foskey says. “I did not even see the massive pile of supplies in the corner until Melissa pointed them out.”

The post garnered plenty of attention from history buffs and fans of preserved retro homes, and even helped to connect the group with the daughter of the home’s original owner and designer. 

“It’s a living time capsule,” Foskey says. “You step into this thing and you’re just taken back. There’s that thermometer on the wall that probably hasn’t moved in 60 years… there’s almost not a spot of dust on anything this place is so well built.”

The family has committed to preserving the shelter, not only because of its unique place in history, but also because… well, it’s impossible to do much else with it. “It’s meant to withstand a blast from, I think it was a mile or less… and I believe it.” says Foskey. “That place is solid. You walk in there, you can’t hear anything, there’s no moving air. It’s amazing.”