The Key Word Is "Survival" On The New Frontier
May 6, 2010 9:33 PM   Subscribe

The complete history of the Fallout Shelter sign.
posted by mattdidthat (36 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
An earlier, related thread.
posted by mattdidthat at 9:34 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I took some pictures of these signs in NYC:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/patricio00/sets/72157601788589467/
posted by Omon Ra at 9:39 PM on May 6, 2010


I was just discussing the history of the Stop sign with somebody a few hours ago (don't ask me why).

Some forgotten person pushed for a red octagonal Stop sign with white letters and now, every time this person stops, they are both annoyed at having to stop and thrilled at seeing their creation. Must be like this, but more intense, for designers of fallout shelter signs.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:46 PM on May 6, 2010


I have never seen a "Fallout" and hope I will never see one. A consistent description of the monster has not survived, but I have heard the legends.
posted by griphus at 9:47 PM on May 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Holy shit, people use Knol?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:54 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Psychiatrist (Shelter Signs)
posted by gubo at 9:55 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have never seen a "Fallout" and hope I will never see one.

There are lots of these.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:01 PM on May 6, 2010


Coolness, I have an FS2 hanging in my workshop in gross violation of all kinds of laws!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:03 PM on May 6, 2010


I have an FS2 hanging in my workshop in gross violation of all kinds of laws

When they drop the big one we're all coming to your place.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:04 PM on May 6, 2010


I have never seen a "Fallout" and hope I will never see one.

There are lots of these.


If I may explain the joke, griphus was quipping that the signs indicated a particular place where a thing called "Fallout" would take shelter. Like a dragon's lair or something.

You're welcome.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:09 PM on May 6, 2010


Well just nuke me.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:12 PM on May 6, 2010


Well, at least we already sorta got the Negativland reference out of the way early.
posted by mykescipark at 10:17 PM on May 6, 2010


Nice headline.
posted by Clave at 10:18 PM on May 6, 2010


Less quipping and more actively misquoting.
posted by griphus at 10:26 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Good research. His other articles make for an interesting read too, e.g. The girl in the Kremlin - Did Stalin really have such a follicle fixation? With a follow up - The real girl in the Kremlin interview.
posted by tellurian at 10:37 PM on May 6, 2010


I've got one in my office at work.
posted by mrbill at 10:59 PM on May 6, 2010


Huh. I always assumed that the fallout shelter sign was meant to evoke the radiation logo, they're really similar. It's interesting that not only were they different, but after creation they tried to prove that they were not even confusable.
posted by delmoi at 11:10 PM on May 6, 2010


I've got one in my office at work.

A guy where I work has one right above a shelf with an old Geiger counter on it. It's pretty sweet.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:27 AM on May 7, 2010


I have never seen a "Fallout" and hope I will never see one. A consistent description of the monster has not survived, but I have heard the legends.

Well, I've seen its "boy:, and let me tell you, the sound it makes is hideous.
posted by qvantamon at 1:16 AM on May 7, 2010


I see them everywhere! Everywhere!
posted by loquacious at 2:39 AM on May 7, 2010


I thought it was a riff on A Canticle for Liebowitz?
posted by Meatbomb at 3:23 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting article. Here's a 1962 toy dollhouse with a bomb shelter.
posted by marxchivist at 5:49 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some of those logos look like an upside down Triforce. The true secret of Zelda becomes apparent!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:04 AM on May 7, 2010


I always saw the symbol as fan blades, never as downward falling triangles. Falling triangles make a lot more sense.

I would stare at one of those signs in elementary school, waiting in the cafeteria line. It was on a door beneath a staircase. When I finished high school in 1986, I had a summer job as a janitor at that elementary school, and we cleaned out that closet beneath the stairs.

Quoting JFK in the article:

"…to stock those shelters with food, water, first-aid kits and other minimum essentials for survival; to increase their capacity…"


What we found in the back of the closet were several oil drum sized containers, sealed and date-stamped in the early sixties. We unpacked one of them. Mostly, it was filled with square boxes that had paint can lids. Prying them open, they were filled with crackers that tasted like saltines without salt on them. Bandages and band-aids. As for other minimum essentials, a lot of maxi-pads.

Reading this article, 1980s punk paranoia and every-man-for-himself conservatism feels like the result of 1960s civil defense and Great Society, minus 1970s Watergate and hostage crisis.
posted by bendybendy at 6:34 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's always creepy for me, as a Gen Y, to see these signs. It's creepy that the world was so close to nuclear war that we needed places like this in the suburbs. At least these days nuclear war is an issue of potential terrorist actions rather than MAD.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:38 AM on May 7, 2010


I always saw the symbol as fan blades

Huh. For me it was always a film reel. Still, like the biohazard logo, it has a terse economy that really appeals to me.

Also, it was twisted into an awesome t-shirt when I was a kid.
posted by quin at 7:27 AM on May 7, 2010


This is great. Thanks for linking it!
posted by Shepherd at 7:30 AM on May 7, 2010


McC.T: At least these days nuclear war is an issue of potential terrorist actions rather than MAD.

It's not clear to me why people think they're safer now. (I'm old enough to have lived in both eras; to me it seems like during the Cold War we had a very small chance of something hugely horrific happening and today we have a relatively greater chance of something only moderately horrific happening.)

bendy^2: Prying them open, they were filled with crackers that tasted like saltines without salt on them.

After a few days in the shelter I am guessing those horrible crackers would taste pretty damn good. As for the no salt thing, would you really have wanted the survivors of sudden, all-out nuclear armageddon to be hypertensive on top of their other challenges?
posted by aught at 7:33 AM on May 7, 2010


I would stare at one of those signs in elementary school, waiting in the cafeteria line. It was on a door beneath a staircase.

In our elementary school, late 1960s, because the school hadn't kept with population growth they had to convert a couple basement storerooms into sort-of classrooms, one for music lessons (I was honking madly away on an alto saxophone) and speech classes (which I went to for the lateral lisp thing).

I remember the Fallout Shelter signs in that basement riveted into the wall next to a heavy door that lead to the school heating oil burner, and the capacity number (a hundred and some) etched into the face. Even then in fourth or fifth grade I remember thinking, "Huh. That's not even enough for all the kids in the school, never mind staff and aides -- and, wait, what about all our parents and brothers and sisters. We'll never all be able to fit in the shelter if the Russian bomb us!"

I also used to imagine is how, past the big heavy door going into the basement furnace room, in the far corner of the furnace room there must be some kind of big, radiation-proof hatch covering a ladder that went down into a lead-lined shelter - the shelter proper. What I realize as a jaded adult is that the smelly, hot, basement furnace room (which had eye-level windows as many basements do, looking out on the asphalt of the parking lot at tire-level) probably WAS the shelter.

I also realize that what I was imagining 40 some years ago was pretty close to what Lost, decades later, came up with for the Swan Station hatch (and for all I know they were consciously going for that Cold War fallout shelter vibe).
posted by aught at 7:50 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]



Perhaps the most notorious salvo in the debate came in September of 1961 when Father Laurence C. McHugh wrote in the Jesuit magazine America that Americans had the moral obligation to defend their shelters from their neighbors.

Not surprising, but amusing none the less.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:54 AM on May 7, 2010


I was an art major, and the crappy old building the university gave the art department for student studios had one of these signs. There were a lot of spooky things about the building, possibly enhanced by being there almost alone, many many nights until the early morning.

Studios at night can already be some pretty creepy places. Lots of objects, walls completely plastered with photos, exhibition cards, reference drawings, dirt, grime, and splatters. This building had some extra help. It used to be the student health center, and wasn't remodeled or anything when the art department took it over.

I was in love with the rickety old elevator, the kind with the accordion style gate you had to close yourself. Every heave and rattle echoed and clanged. For a moment, on every ride, I was certain it was going to fail and I would fall. There wasn't a "call for help" system either, it would be just you and the concrete.

The second story was where gynecology used to be. Every office had it's own bathroom, complete with a tub and shower. They were mostly used to dump out painty water, so they had an indescribable color and patina to them; splashes of paint ran all the way up and down the walls. A few of them had the doors removed (so no one would think about showering in them) and they all opened up into the main hallway. So, imagine if you will, it's 2am, you're walking down a corridor passing, dirty grey dingy bathroom after bathroom, a single can light in each casting harsh shadows. The old plumbing leaks slightly, and an echoing drip, drip, drip, follows you. The fluorescent bulbs in the hallway hum and buzz, and that one set, just past the 4th door flickers on and off.

At the end of the hallway is one of the drawing studios. Lots of tables are arranged around the model stand in the center. There may be pillows and sheets set up, white masking tape marking where the model's body was. It may have an elaborate still life erected in it. One professor I know loved to make a stack of junk from floor to ceiling, and had you draw all of it. Or it may just be a simple skeleton, a few clip lights someone forgot to turn off shining from underneath. This room used to be the lab, where they would draw blood. The bathroom here had one of those pee-sample cabinets.

Theres a closet in this room that some of the professors refuse to use. When the building was handed over, very little cleaning was done, and it was basically left to the art professors to get things in working order. This closet was locked and no one had given them a key. Eventually they got the door open, I think by removing the door knob. In it were boxes and boxes of used needles. Not in biohazard bags or proper containers. Just cardboard boxes of used needles. The professor who described this to me, whom I should clarify is a complete badass and strong woman in every way, openly wore the anxiety that even the memory of these horrible boxes caused. She didn't use the closet and as a result, most of the drawing objects were stacked in boxes along the perimeter. Boxes full of skulls, old dolls, rusted milk jugs, a tiny tricycle, and few mannequin limbs for good measure. A box of mirrors for self portraits, fake flowers and doilies, and old sheets with patterns you couldn't find today. These objects would crop up in different peoples' portfolios through out the years; "I know that milk jug!" It was a line of objects connecting the students together through time and changes.

The third story was the floor I don't think of as being particularly scary. This was where my studio was, and it was full of life no matter the hour. That great old orange and green plaid couch, which was home to homeless students for a time. The wine bottles hidden in the push up ceiling tiles. A conference room with a not-particularly-well-locked projector closet was our personal laptop theater many nights; zombie movies were my favorite. The windows here opened, and you could hear the bars and streets below.

I know that a few years earlier, there was a student and she was working late on the third story. She went to use the bathroom, (a normal bathroom, thankfully), which is down the hall and away from all the studios. In the bathroom, alone, unprovoked, a janitor more or less kicked her face in. Apparently the cleaning service hadn't done a background check on this guy and he was unstable. She recovered, but did not return. The cleaning service lost it's contract with the school, and the guy served jail time. It was more or less impossible to not contemplate this story while seated in the stall with tantalizingly few facts to attempt to rationalize the senseless act.

Heading back down stairs, (or down the elevator if you had the nerves), the basement was, I suppose, where the fallout shelter would have been. It was a ground level walk out on one side, and the other side was slightly below grade, having been built into a sloping hill. The only room I could imagine being a fall out shelter was the intro computer lab. It had small high windows, which kept glare to a minimum with its new purpose, but I can't imagine how much protection it would have given if it's former function was needed. I'm sure any provisions or supplies were long gone, but I think this building could have given some sustenance to it's occupants, or at least an outlet for the horror around them.

I had always said I was going to steal that sign before I graduated. I had even borrowed a ladder, but before my attempt, I realized they were small bolts holding the sign into the brick, not just screws. I had taken many things from this building (including a "belt-less" maxi-pad dispenser, but that's another story) but that sign remained.
posted by fontophilic at 9:22 AM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


I had taken many things from this building (including a "belt-less" maxi-pad dispenser, but that's another story) but that sign remained.

*raises hand* I'd like to hear the dispenser story. :)
posted by zarq at 9:30 AM on May 7, 2010


The only think I remember eating in my life that's older than I am is the 50 year old can of lemon drops my buddy found in a 1950s era fallout shelter. Don't tell my Mom, she'd freak.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:51 AM on May 7, 2010


Thinking back on it, these signs - and the whole Civil Defense mentality - were a pervasive part of my childhood in the 1960s. So pervasive that they seemed normal, until one day you realized that the fallout shelters and air raid drills were completely useless. A basement or janitor's closet? Might be OK if the Luftwaffe was overhead, but without air filtration or radiation shielding they wouldn't do squat against radioactive fallout.

And those weekly air raid drills in elementary school where we clambered under our desks and sat with our heads between our knees were supposed to protect us from what, exactly? Nobody even told us to get away from the windows in case the glass shattered.

Eventually the disconnect between the threat (ominous pictures of mushroom clouds were everywhere) and the response (go sit under your desk) made your head explode, and then you looked at everything through a cynical lens. If the US Government and the media, both of which still had some credibility at the time, were feeding the public this poorly-thought-out-to-utterly-useless Cold War bullshit, maybe everything else they said was bullshit too. Then the Vietnam War came along and pretty much cemented that idea.

It was definitely an era that induced cynicism. Most Americans went into the 1960s with some degree of trust and confidence in the government, even though the McCarthy fiasco had eroded a lot of the goodwill left over from WWII. But by the end of the decade, anybody with half a brain had to admit that you couldn't believe everything you read in the papers, and the US Government's hands were dirty and often inept. The anti-hero became the new movie hero. Hippies deliberately rejected almost everything the WWII generation squares believed in. There wasn't much an idealist could cling to, so we became cynics instead. (Wounded idealists, indeed.)

The current zeitgeist of snark and irony seems to me like an extension of the self-protective cynicism of my generation, adapted for use by a generation that has never had much reason to trust the government or public institutions. (You know something's wrong when some people think Mr. Rogers is creepy.) I'd love to see a little earnestness creep back into the public sphere, but it requires trust and idealism to declare what you believe in (except for religion, and I'm not gonna go there). Trust - in institutions as well as individuals - is easy to lose and overwhelmingly hard to regain, and I don't think the world will change enough in my lifetime for a mass return to earnest idealism.

OK, that's a long way from fallout shelter signs. But despite seeing those signs everywhere in the 1960s, I never actually set foot inside one of these shelters. You'd think at least they'd show us kids where the shelter was at our school and how to get inside it, but nope. (Probably because you can't actually fit 200 kids into a janitor's closet, but we wouldn't want to worry the little darlings, now would we?)
posted by Quietgal at 11:58 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Besides the audio up there for Psychiatrist (Yellow Signs), I'm surprised no one was enough of a music geek/hipster to mention Negativland's "Yellow Black and Rectangular", which samples that record.
posted by Chocomog at 5:44 AM on May 8, 2010


Besides the audio up there for Psychiatrist (Yellow Signs), I'm surprised no one was enough of a music geek/hipster to mention Negativland's "Yellow Black and Rectangular", which samples that record.

Well...
posted by mykescipark at 9:09 PM on May 8, 2010


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