20 Chilling Photos Of Bomb Shelters During The Cold War

By Sarah Norman | July 19, 2023

The Family That Shelters Together Stays Together

Step into the time machine and journey back to a remarkable era in American history, when the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed large over the nation. The Cold War, a period characterized by intense political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, ignited fears of a catastrophic nuclear strike. In response, a wave of bomb shelters and nuclear fallout shelters emerged, aiming to safeguard lives and provide a glimmer of hope amidst the uncertainty.

Today, as memories of this tumultuous era fade or remain mere fragments of recollection, we invite you to delve into this captivating slideshow. Explore the fascinating world of bomb shelters, relive the ingenuity and paranoia of the past, and gain a renewed appreciation for the indomitable spirit of the American people. Buckle up, for this captivating journey into history will leave you hungry for more. Continue reading to discover the secrets of America's Cold War shelters and their enduring legacy.

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(Walter Sanders/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

A major feature of the Cold War was the looming threat of nuclear strikes and the ever-present sensation of doom that accompanied it. While schools ran "duck and cover" drills that sent students huddling beneath their desks (fairly ineffective if the bomb was actually close enough to do damage), many families tried to find more practical protection in the horrible event that a bomb was about to detonate nearby. The fallout shelter was all the rage during the '50s and '60s, and some of them were quite impressive. How reliable they would have been if put to the test remains a mystery (hopefully forever), but they do show us just how far humanity will go to feel safe in an increasingly unpredictable and dangerous world.

Take the above photo, an interior view of a 4,500-lb. steel underground radiation fallout shelter located in a family's backyard in New York. A shelter of this type would be expected to survive the blast and protect the family from the initial fallout but wouldn't have sustained them for long. Companies that popped up across the country, eager to profit from the public's fears in the decades following World War II, hosted large exhibitions where they showed off prefabricated shelters just like the one shown above. The short-term but highly profitable bomb shelter bubble burst just as soon as America's anxiety subsided, but some shelters found second lives as extra storage space or even living or sleeping accommodations. 

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The safest place to be in the event of a nuclear blast is, of course, underground. A family would not only survive the blast wave but also the heat and possibly even lower their exposure to radiation. Diagrams like the one shown above were used by companies to show people how they could fit a shelter into their already existing homes. While this shelter would certainly be safer from the blast than a prefabricated aboveground shelter, it still lacks the ability to sustain a family for an extended period of time. If the detonation was close enough, it's also likely that the family would still suffer major side effects from radiation. While the initial blast of Hiroshima killed over 100,000 people, many survivors began to die months and even years later due to radiation poisoning and cancer.