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Fallout Fears

When I was a kid, every other week the air raid sirens would screech their alarming wails and my classmates and I would be ordered to “duck and cover.” The remedy for nuclear attack (that so many pundits were predicting) was to crawl under the desk and “kiss your ass goodbye.” When released from school, I would go home to Stuyvesant Town (a postwar middle class project), where I was greeted daily by a recently installed yellow and black fallout shelter sign. Apparently, since my building was constructed of brick and mortar, we inhabitants would be safe from radioactivity. Ha ha! The fallout shelter sign was both a sign of eventual doom and a joke that survival was possible.

Bill Geerhart, editor of Conelrad.com, has just published an extensive history of “An Indelible Cold War Symbol” and for scholars and buffs of vernacular design, it is essential reading. “On Saturday, December 2, 1961, a deceptively modest graphic, transmitted the day before by the Department

of Defense to the wire services, appeared in newspapers across the

country heralding the new symbol that would quickly come to define an

era,” he writes. “Walk around any major city today and you will still be able to see

at least a few rusty Fallout Shelter Signs attached to buildings of a

certain vintage,” he adds. The article details the reasons for creating such public shelters as well as the rationale for the design itself.

Greehart traces his research steps: “It turns out that the key to unraveling the story was hidden in plain sight from the beginning. On most Fallout Shelter Signs … there is the following fine print: ‘Not to be used or reproduced without Department of Defense permission.’ From day one this should have been a red flag to us that the sign was registered with some legal authority with a corresponding paper trail explaining its development. Unfortunately, it took us another few years to realize this point and to finally reach our ‘Eureka!’ moment.” You don’t have to wait a few years for the blast of realization. Read it here.