The very first Fallout Shelter Sign ever posted was on the exterior of the Westchester County Building at 148 Martine Avenue in White Plains, New York on October 4, 1961. The capacity of the shelter was marked as being for 1,730 persons. The sign itself no longer exists, but an image of it was used in a December 1, 1961 press release by the Defense Department. This photo now resides at the National Archives and Records and Administration in College Park, Maryland. CONELRAD scanned it during the research phase of our comprehensive history of the sign.
The following text appears on the back of the black and white government still. A small portion of this government-composed text announcing the sign to the public found its way into newspapers across the country on December 2, 1961:
SC 587821 Washington D.C.
The National Fallout Shelter Sign will be a familiar sight in communities all over the United States next year. It will mark buildings and other facilities as areas where 50 or more persons can be sheltered from radioactive fallout resulting from a nuclear attack. The sign will be used only to mark Federally-approved buildings surveyed by architect-engineer firms under contract to the Department of Defense. The color combination, yellow and black, is considered as the most easily identified attention getter by psychologists in the graphic arts industry. The sign can be seen and recognized at distances up to 200 feet. The shelter symbol on the sign is a black circle set against a yellow rectangular background. Inside the circle, three yellow triangles are arranged in geometric pattern with the apex of the triangles pointing down. Below the fallout symbol, lettered in yellow against black, are the words FALLOUT SHELTER in plain block letters. Yellow directional arrows located directly underneath the lettering which will indicate the location of the shelter.
1 December 1961 Name of photographer is not given
Before the Kennedy-era survival sign took root, there were older shelter signs that needed to be removed. The following shot of Government Services Administration employee Anthony Galati conveys the changing of the guard in signage:
In some cases, the old sign coexisted with the new sign (because the installer was too lazy to remove the old sign):
Governors, mayors and lesser mortals exploited the posting of the signs for photo-ops…
From November 5, 1962: Massachusetts Governor John A. Volpe (on ladder) hangs the first Fallout Shelter Sign in Massachusetts at the State House in Boston. He is assisted by Major General John J. Maginnis, Director of the Massachusetts State Civil Defense, Col. Peter Hyzer, Corps of Engineers, Division Engineer and John N. Levins, Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, State Chief.
From November 7, 1962: Left to Right: State Civil Defense Director Maj. Gen. Francis B. Swiney, Corps of Engineers Col. Otto J. Rohde; State Department Public Safety, Burgess Hodges; Mr. Thompson, Allen Dick, Office of Civil Defense Regional; Richard Brodeur, Director of Civil Defense, Concord, New Hampshire; Mayor Charles P. Davie (on ladder) of Concord, NH placing first Fallout Shelter Sign in the state of New Hampshire.
From November 8, 1962: Col. Peter Hyser, Corps of Engineers Division, Gov. F. Ray Keyser (on ladder), and William B. Baumann, Department of Public Safety placing the first Fallout Shelter Sign in the state of Vermont.
But mostly, the posting of these signs by the tens of thousands (at least) in the 1960s and 1970s was a boring, repetitive task. The National Archives has preserved some of the more mundane scenes of the task in progress…
Of course, the government took special care to put the signs up, but removing them after the end of the Cold War was not on the top of anyone’s priority lists…