In the 1950s and early 1960s, the buzz word in American homes was "fallout shelter."
A fallout shelter was a civil defense initiative intended to reduce casualties in a nuclear war. It was designed to allow occupants to avoid exposure to harmful radioactive fallout from a nuclear blast and its likely aftermath of radiation until radioactivity dropped to a safer level.
The fallout shelter craze came with the cold war involving the United States and Russia. Events during the cold war heightened the awareness of fallout shelters and peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed little interest in shelters until 1957, when a Gaither Report was released. The report assessed the relative nuclear capability and civil defense efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union.
The report concluded that the United States would soon be surpassed in all categories of nuclear weaponry and that civil defense preparations in the USSR were well ahead of American efforts.
Public response to the report was an upsurge in fallout shelters. By the late 1950s, officials were actively promoting the construction of fallout shelters as part of the civil defense program. Plans were drawn up. From 1958 onward, the Office of Civil Defense not only promoted home shelters but also published a collection of manuals and created videos that showed Americans why, and how, to build home shelters.
The Russians ended a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing with a blast over central Russia in 1961 and warned the West that "It would take really very few multimegaton nuclear bombs to wipe out your small and densely populated countries and kill you instantly in your lairs."
President John F. Kennedy recommended a course of action to his fellow Americans:
"A fallout shelter for everybody," he said, "as rapidly as possible." Calling the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 "the great testing place of Western courage and will," Kennedy promised to let every citizen know what steps he could take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.
A year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis would shove the world to the brink of a nuclear war for 13 agonizing days.
The Soviets had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of the United States. Soviet field commanders in Cuba were authorized to use tactical nuclear weapons if invaded by the United States.
Fortunately, the nuclear bombs were never dropped.
People continued to build fallout shelters until the mid-1960s when nuclear weapon testing bans and nuclear disarmament campaigns became prevalent -- the strategy of building fallout shelters waned.
Americans began to accept that fallout shelters probably did little to protect them from a nuclear disaster. The bomb shelters became wine cellars, storage spaces or just plain storm shelters.
A 1950s fallout shelter sits in the basement of Ann and Robert "Flute" Snyder on Laurel Avenue in Hudson. The home, built in approximately 1957, has a shelter, complete with cement ceiling and partial sand floor, under the eastern portion of the house.
"The sand floor was left so a person could bury turds and pee if needed," Snyder said.
Like classic shelters of the day, it has the L-shaped entrance.
The federal government recommended that fallout shelters be placed in a basement or buried in the back yard. The idea was to get as much mass as possible between survivors, the detonation, and its after-effects.
A fallout shelter built in the corner of a basement was the least expensive type, and it supposedly offered substantial protection. In many plans, concrete blocks provided the walls. An open doorway and vents near the floor provided ventilation. The shelter's entrance was constructed with a sharp turn to reduce radiation intensity. According to civil defense authorities, a concrete block basement shelter could be built as a do-it-yourself project for $150 to $200 at the time. As part of a project for a contractor, the cost could have gone to $1,000 or more.
Exactly how much protection it actually afforded was an open question.
Ventilation in most shelters was provided by a hand-cranked blower attached by a pipe to a filter mechanism on the surface. By turning the crank, the shelter would be ventilated with fresh air filtered to keep out radioactive particles. More elaborate plans involved installation of an electrical generator to provide all the comforts of home.
"Our shelter had an air-exchange unit, but I disconnected it," Snyder said.
He has never been a fan of fallout shelters.
"I think the bomb shelter idea was a farce," Snyder said. "We don't use it as bomb shelter - it's not stocked with any provisions."
In fact, the space is used mostly for the storage of Christmas decorations.
"We use it for storage, and it can be used as a storm shelter," Snyder said. "I've told my neighbors they are welcome to come over if they see a tornado coming across the river."
Stocking the shelter
When shelters were being constructed, it was recommended that inhabitants remain in the space for at least two weeks following a nuclear blast. They could then leave the shelter for a few hours a day to begin with. It was suggested that people sleep in the shelter for at least three months.
Some of the fancier shelters in the day had many items to make things more comfortable. They included a battery-powered radio, lanterns, sleeping bags and cots, Geiger counter, chemical toilet and waste holding tanks/waste disposal bags, heating system and fuel tank, air circulation system or air filtering systems, or bottled air, electrical generator, firearms (to discourage intruders) and communications hardware. Recommended supplies included a variety of canned goods, bottled drinking water or water storage drums, first-aid kits, reading material, recreational materials, cleaning supplies, extra clothing and writing materials.
There were also public areas designated, and built, as fallout shelters and were marked with a telltale yellow and black sign. In 1961 President Kennedy asked the Congress for $100 million to build public shelters. Those areas eventually were converted to other uses.