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Why Fallout Shelters Never Caught On: A History

Published: August 26, 2011

At the height of the Cold War, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union bristled with nukes. It was a terrifying period. What was the average American supposed to do if our worst nightmare, nuclear war, actually came to pass?

“Just dig a hole!” the government told us. According to authorities, building a fallout shelter — this is assuming you had a back yard to build one in — would greatly increase the chances for surviving a nuclear attack. But Post author Hanson Baldwin, in 1962, was on hand with a little reality check. Sure we are all scared to death, but, he pointed out, living in a shelter wouldn’t protect us. Even if we survived the explosion, what were we supposed to do next?

It is utter hokum to claim, as some have done, that more than 90 percent of the population could be saved by a national shelter program designed to protect against radioactivity alone.

The survivor may emerge into an area uninhabitable for days, weeks, months, years, or a lifetime. His immediate need is to know where to go to reach an area relatively uncontaminated by radioactivity. If he has to walk, he may receive a lethal dose of radioactivity before he reaches safety. [“The Case Against Fallout Shelters” March 31, 1962]

Baldwin quoted a director at Consumer Reports who had examined the commercially available models of fallout shelters.

“Fallout shelters of the type widely proposed to date are … costly and complex in their requirements [oxygen supply, water, power, heat, food, sanitary arrangements, and so forth] … limited and unreliable in usefulness, and … generally dependent on variables and unknowns.”

After all the debate and arguments about shelters between 1961 and 1962, only about 200,000 shelters were sold nationwide — a small number for a population of 180 million. As another Post article described in 1965, the failure of the shelters to catch on ruptured the entrepreneurial dreams of one James J. Byrne. In 1961, this Detroit plywood dealer purchased a truckload of build-it-yourself shelters, which he planned to sell to eager homeowners. As he expressed it:

“I didn’t see how I could miss.”

He liked the shelter’s design — three hollow walls and a hollow ceiling (to be filled later with a mixture of sand and gravel) … When placed against a basement wall, it provided shelter space about six feet high and eight feet square. … It was so sturdy that, the [manufacturer] assured Byrne, it would withstand even the collapse of a house on top of it.

Furthermore, it could be bought in kit form — 73 major steel components, none weighing more than 150 pounds — for about $430 wholesale and sold for a retail price of $725.

The first hint of trouble came when [Byrne] detailed four employees to assemble the display shelter on a company truck. According to the salesman, two men could do the job in from two to four hours. Byrne’s workmen took ten.

Had they been installing the shelter permanently, they would also have had to dump a small mountain of sand — four to five cubic yards — into the eight-inch hollow between the walls and between the ceiling panels. This task, Byrne had been told, would require another ten hours. But upon thinking it over, Byrne was not so sure.

“You are filling a space nearly seven feet high, and there are only a few inches’ clearance between the shelter and the basement ceiling,” he says. “How are you going to get the sand in there? With a spoon? And how can you pack the ceiling panels without having the sand run right back in your face?” [“Anyone For Survival?” May 27, 1965]

Despite his misgivings, Byrne hired a sales director and drove the shelter on a flatbed truck around the region. According to the sales director,

“Thousands of people streamed through the display but nobody bought… People would listen to their pitch … take all the literature they could get, ask questions, then say something like, ‘We can’t afford it now,’ or ‘I guess we’ll see how things turn out.’”

“People were confused, frightened, angry,” [Byrne] says. “I was accused of profiteering, war-mongering — you name it. P

They didn’t make a single sale.

Eventually Byrne had to write off his investment as a loss. He announced he would give away the shelters, but still there were no takers.

The idea of building a fallout shelter is generally a subject of humor these days, but at the height of nuclear fears, why didn’t more Americans take up the idea? Some thought that building everyone a hidey-hole was tempting fate. Byrne: “One woman shouted at me — shouted— ‘Don’t you know that the more shelters we have the more likely someone is to start a war? Why do you do this to us?'”

Others opposed them on religious grounds. Byrne again: “People who believed in predestination called me sacrilegious. My minister was angry with me. Even my wife disapproved. ‘I don’t believe God ever intended for people to live like that,’ she told me.”

And of course, there’s the prospect of spending weeks, months, maybe even years living in 60 square feet of space with, gulp, family members!

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  • Ima Ryma

    Back in the ’60s my Dad built
    A bomb shelter in the basement,
    To protect us all to the hilt
    From a red commie nuke event.
    He showed it to us once when done,
    And then he did padlock the door.
    Dad kept the key – the only one,
    And life went on just like before.
    At times we could not find my Dad.
    We knew he was somewhere at home.
    Later we found out his fav pad –
    The bomb shelter was where he’d roam.

    That’s where my Dad would disappear
    To read porn mags and to drink beer.

  • Don Dugger

    And if you had a shelter, stocked with supplies, and your neighbor did not, when he came pounding on your shelter door, you’d have to kill him to protect your own supplies. Who’d want to do that?