Everyone has their guilty pleasures; mine just happen to be reality TV and buying in bulk. I’m enabled by a reality show known as Extreme Couponing, wherein thrifty individuals orchestrate “coupon attacks” on local grocery stores, walking away with a mountain of imperishables, all free. I live vicariously through their hoarding tendencies, raptly following along as they fill entire rooms of their homes with elaborate, Tetris-style pyramids of toilet paper, shampoo and Wheat Thins. Actually consuming the goods found in these stock piles isn’t the point of the exercise; these packed closets and garages exist as a security blanket realized in canned goods and plastic, never to expire in the face of disaster. They’re contemporary fallout shelters, really.
There’s a long history of paranoia, governmental dogma and hairbrained schemes behind these bunkers. Susan Roy’s new book, Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack, catalogs the many versions of the DIY fallout shelter that have existed in the last century, as well as the government agencies that pushed forward fear of the unknown. As Roy states in her book:
“Fear of fallout gripped the nation. The government acknowledged that a bomb shelter would be useless against a direct hit by the H-bomb, which would destroy a bomb shelter as easily as the wolf blew down the house of straw in the fairy tale, The Three Little Pigs. However, it said, you can protect yourself against fallout. During a nuclear attack, go into your fallout shelter and stay there for two weeks, until the radiation in the atmosphere has dropped to a safe level.”
Photo by Bomboozled / Pointed Leaf Press
Regardless of their viability to protect families, bomb shelters flourished in the ’50s. As there was no precedent for safety amidst world destruction, a wide variety of homemade shelters developed in the wilds of suburbia. A recent profile of Bomboozled in The New Yorker connects the kitschy, depressing spaces constructed underground with the Cold War mentalities and random acts of terror that frighten us today:
“Bomb shelters have existed in Europe since at least the Second World War, but DIY nuclear-fallout shelters — evoking both paranoia and optimism — are an American innovation. The government encouraged people to build them during the Cold War. ‘They’re an example of our obsession with security, and of the government responding to people’s demand to be protected from things you really can’t be protected from.’
“There was no right way to build a fallout shelter. ‘They had some shelters that were pod-shaped,’ she states, ‘and rectangles, cubes, and little igloos made out of concrete blocks. The Kelsey-Hayes Shelter was designed for easy assembly. Ad copy: ‘No excavating. No stones to lay. Simply bolt the prefabricated panels together in your basement and fill with sand and gravel or earth.’
And it gets better. Some took the government’s precautions more seriously than others, resulting in vast, luxurious pads underground that are supreme camp today. In fact:
“Roy got the idea for the book when she came across an issue of the magazine Nest with pictures of a spacious ranch house, which was constructed in the seventies, for the businessman Girard B. Henderson, in a steel-and-concrete shell twenty-five feet under Las Vegas. The house has oil paintings, sliding glass doors, and, in the little yard area inside the shell, a guesthouse, a putting green , and a patio barbecue. The walls of the cave around it are painted with scenes of New Jersey and of a New Zealand sheep farm — landscapes dear to its owner.”
Though global destruction is an unfortunate possibility few can deny completely, folks today seem less likely to tunnel under the earth than our predecessors. Stockpiling canned corn: that’s a question for another day.
Read more about the history of fallout structures in Roy’s Bomboozled, and get a taste with an excerpt at Design Observer.
What would your bomb shelter look like?