Survival of the richest: Inside the short-lived fallout shelter bubble

The threat of a Cold War nuclear attack forced Americans to reckon with a grim brand of consumerism: buy or die. It’s not much different today.

fallout shelter

Leo Hoegh’s pamphlets and full-page newspaper ads dropped across America in the fall of 1961, landing with about as much subtlety as an atomic blast. “FALLOUT SHELTERS COULD SAVE THE LIVES OF 70 MILLION AMERICANS,” they declared.

Weeks earlier, on July 25, President John F. Kennedy had briefed Americans on the Berlin Crisis. He warned about the potential for a nuclear attack on US soil and, for the first time, leaned into the importance of fallout shelters. But he failed to announce details about how the country would procure them, leaving businessmen like Hoegh to fill in the blanks.

“The lesson,” continued Hoegh’s advertisement, “is fallout shelter is needed everywhere.”

The solution was, specifically, a shelter from Hoegh’s employer, the Wonder Building Corporation. He recommended Americans buy one for their basement or backyard immediately — “Mr. Khrushchev… could make a mistake tomorrow” — and not risk waiting for the US government to offer tax breaks or fund a shelter program.

A family fallout shelter was a smart investment. “Survival insurance,” Hoegh said.

A backyard fallout shelter in San Francisco. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

When you think about fallout shelters, you might imagine public buildings adorned with a faded gold nuclear sign. You might think of doomsday preppers or the intricate vault in the popular Amazon series “Fallout” where protagonist Lucy spends her life underground.

But for about six months in 1961 fallout shelters were a massive bubble, a consumer sensation displayed at the local mall and advertised in the pages of Life magazine. Hundreds of shelter companies entered the industry, marketing their product like any household need. The difference was that shelter companies wanted to convince Americans that if they didn’t have one their families would perish.

But the only fallout came when the shelter bubble burst.

‘Each American for himself’

Before Kennedy’s Berlin Crisis speech, Hoegh had spent years evangelizing for fallout shelters, most of the time shouting into a void.

He’d been raised on a farm in rural Iowa and served in World War II before rising through state politics in Iowa. Looking every bit the former military man with his salt-and-pepper crew cut, Hoegh was elected Iowa governor in 1954.

In 1957, after Hoegh lost a reelection bid, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated him to lead the nation’s Civil Defense office and, a year later, the newly formed Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (OCDM). Hoegh identified fallout shelters as a crucial civil defense tool, given the deteriorating relations between the Soviet Union and the US.

Leo Hoegh (left) is sworn in for his cabinet position. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to the OCDM, shelters had to provide at least 80 cubic feet of space, be made from concrete or metal, and be shielded by three feet of earth, two feet of concrete, or three inches of lead. They’d need to be stocked with two weeks of food and water, the duration before officials believed Americans could return outside to acceptable levels of radiation.

But fallout shelters were expensive. A high-level fallout shelter, according to the OCDM, cost between $1k-$1.5k ($10k-$15k today) — and more spacious, opulent versions could go for as much as ten times that amount.

Congress clearly didn’t see the benefits. The Civil Defense office received around $40m per year, or 0.1% of the nation’s overall defense budget, and experts estimated it would cost as much as $40B to build enough fallout shelters to protect most Americans.

So in the end, Hoegh’s Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization decided to emphasize self-preparation. It distributed specifications for fallout shelters in the “Family Fallout Shelter” booklet in 1959, leaving Americans to construct their own shelter or pay somebody to do it.

As the Santa Barbara News-Press put it in late 1960, “If Khrushchev ‘blows the whistle’ it is each American for himself.”

Months later, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a bill mandating all state residents to build their own shelters, but it didn’t pass. Even in the moneyed suburbs outside New York City hardly anyone applied for permits to build them.

The Hustle

The Wonder Building Corporation, incorporated in Chicago in 1951 to build prefabricated steel farm structures, aimed to popularize shelters by developing a fallout shelter kit. Composed of 73 metal parts, it could be assembled into an 8-by-8-by-6 foot arched hut that would fit within a basement or underground and accommodate six people. Wonder Building claimed the shelter took eight hours to install and started at $295 (~$3k today).

Hoegh’s OCDM described the kit to reporters as a major breakthrough in September 1960. He said the OCDM planned to use a Wonder Building Corporation shelter at an emergency control station in Georgia.

Months later, Eisenhower’s term ended, and Kennedy didn’t retain the OCDM director. Hoegh wasn’t out of a job for long, though. Wonder Building Corporation hired him as an executive to oversee their fallout shelter department.

The shelter bubble inflates

The day after JFK’s Berlin Crisis speech, the country changed. Suddenly, Americans wanted to know everything about fallout shelters.

  • Local governments were flooded with calls from residents and press wanting to know how to take precautions for a bomb.
  • In Phoenix, the mayor said it was every homeowner’s responsibility to shelter their families. A county official in St. Joseph, Missouri, said he’d distribute a 32-page pamphlet for anyone who wanted to learn how to construct their own fallout shelter.
  • The federal government offered to insure loans for home fallout shelters through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

The Wonder Building Corporation started fielding more calls than ever.

A model fallout shelter in Grand Central Station in October 1961. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Orders for its fallout shelters increased from ~50 per week just before the speech to ~500 after. Monthly sales went from ~$60k to ~$1.7m that fall. In addition to the $295 kits, Wonder Building offered above ground shelters for $1.4k and premium underground shelters for ~$2k. It planned to expand production to another Chicago facility and open others on the West Coast and in Canada.

The company’s financial success and Hoegh’s ties to the US government created some fallout of their own. A New York Times columnist called out his prior government ties, as did an Ohio senator who said Hoegh had used his stature to urge the building of fallout shelters and reap “a rich financial harvest.” A Soviet newspaper accused him of “whipping up hysteria” to get wealthy off the Cold War.

Hoegh countered that he was “making a personal contribution to the nation’s security.” But he also told the Des Moines Register he was earning more money than he ever had because of Wonder Building’s success.

“We are bursting at the seams,” he said.

Hoegh’s family modeled one of their shelters. (Lincoln Journal Star/AP)

Hoegh wasn’t alone in chasing prosperity. Wonder Building Corporation was joined by many other major shelter manufacturers: Atlas Bomb Shelter in Sacramento, Acme Bomb & Fallout Shelters in Dallas, Kelsey-Hayes in Detroit.

Countless more general contractors and pool salesmen suddenly became fallout shelter experts, too. Some of them followed the federal OCDM recommendations to build shelters, while others were obvious fly-by-night scams, selling shelters made from wood or, as Time reported, flimsy shelters that popped out of the ground when it rained.

They believed they were chasing a fortune. The newly formed trade group the National Shelter Association predicted fallout shelter industry revenues could total ~$20B a year over the next decade (~$200B in today’s dollars, or ~2x more than Tesla made last year). Beyond family shelters, major companies predicted they’d eventually build large shelters for corporations, hospitals, and schools.

To publicize their products, they’d display them at trade shows and malls. Astute salesmen noted the shelters doubled as storage facilities or rumpus rooms. Life magazine showed a teenager lounging in a fallout shelter and sipping on a Coke while chatting on the telephone.

In 1959, a newlywed couple spent their two-week honeymoon sealed in a Miami fallout shelter as a publicity stunt. (Don’t worry, they received a free trip to Mexico, and their marriage survived the shelter intact.)  (Bettmann/Getty Images) 

But by December 1961, a few weeks after the US and Soviet Union de-escalated the Berlin Crisis, the nation’s psyche had shifted again. 

The bombardment of shelter options gave way to fatigue and skepticism. Journalists and legal authorities pressured unsavory contractors and criticized JFK for having frightened citizens without instructing them on how to stay safe. The National Shelter Association admitted demand had cooled off.

“There now exists a wild fallout of confusion, concern, commercialism, and misinformation,” wrote Newsweek.

Scientists were split on whether properly constructed shelters would even matter, with critics believing a full-scale nuclear attack would kill nearly everyone, sheltered or not. Nobel Prize-winning chemist Willard Libby was one of the most vocal proponents of shelters. But when civil defense directors visited Libby’s own homemade shelter — constructed with burlap sacks filled with dirt — they determined it unsafe.

David Monteyne, a University of Calgary architecture professor and author of Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War, told The Hustle that 1960s shelters made from metal or concrete and properly buried in the earth or built into basements would’ve provided some protection from radiation, although almost no protection from a nuclear bomb’s fire or heat. Blocking radiation successfully, he added, rests on “putting the most mass and distance between you and the radiation.”

Regardless of a shelter’s quality, basically nobody in 1961 had a good answer for what Americans who survived nuclear fallout would do when they exited their shelter two weeks later to a zombified landscape.

The cover of Life on September 15, 1961. (Life/Civil Defense Archives)

Perhaps more than anything, Americans were put off by the idea that they’d be individually fronting a national security cost. “I think the government should help the public build them,” said one California woman.

“The private bomb shelter program isn’t fair to those who have no chance of building their own,” argued two national union leaders.

Millions of Americans fit into this category: Low-wage workers. Apartment dwellers. Black Americans who were infamously blocked from FHA loans. It was becoming clear that private shelters created a morbid rift between the haves and have-nots.

“Only those wealthy enough to afford them could survive,” said then-US Rep. Frank Kowalski. “The others would die.”

The rise and fall of community shelters

While shelter companies tried to sell Americans survival, one city took a different path.

Scientists and government officials in Los Alamos, New Mexico, birthplace of the atomic bomb, found sections of existing buildings they believed could withstand fallout and assigned each of the town’s 17k-plus residents to a community shelter. The residents only had to contribute $5 to stock the shelters with supplies.

Months later, Los Alamos became a model rather than an exception. The Kennedy administration shifted the country’s emphasis (and spending power) to community shelters, leading to hundreds of existing buildings in every large city being designated as fallout shelter spaces and stocked with food, water, and first-aid supplies.

A sign for a community fallout shelter in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Federal Trade Commission, meanwhile, created rules to prevent shelter companies from using fear tactics and exaggerating the efficacy of their shelters in advertisements.

The fallout shelter bubble was ending — and, fortunately, millions of Americans weren’t stuck with empty pockets and questionable shelters. Estimates on private shelter purchases in the early 1960s range from 200k-500k, or roughly 1 percent of US households. (Hoegh had predicted 15m shelters would be sold in 1961 alone.)

Instead of average Americans, it was mostly the shelter businesses that felt the pain:

  • By fall 1962, the National Shelter Association estimated 600 firms had failed.
  • The association’s president, Frank Norton of Atomic Shelter Corp., said he lost $100k (~$1m today).

“It looked like we had the world by the seat of the pants with a downhill pull and tailwind,” one shelter business owner told the Wall Street Journal in 1962. His company lasted less than 90 days.

The Hustle

Sales at Hoegh’s Wonder Corporation fell sharply, too, from 500 per week in the fall of 1961 to 10 per week in 1962. The company ended up with some 3k shelters in storage, a loss of millions in today’s dollars.

Hoegh took a new job with a radiation detection device company. Deep into the 1970s, he still had his basement outfitted to sustain a nuclear attack.

Indeed, the debate over fallout shelters never ended. The government quit stocking and maintaining the community shelters in the ’70s and gave up on a public shelter network, putting the onus back on individuals, many of whom have reacted to grim world events by reaching for ’60s nuclear preparation.

After 9/11, a rush on shelters occurred. With nuclear war now more likely than at any point since the peak of the Cold War, super-rich doomsday preppers have purchased deluxe bunkers with swimming pools and gun ranges.

The spirit of 1961 — and the inclination to put a steep price on survival — may never fall out of style.

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