Sunday, June 19, 2011


“Some day I’m going to write a paper about the fallout shelter signs.”

-- Robert W. Blakeley in a 1986 oral history interview for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers[i]



Just as it would be difficult to imagine the Cold War without the Berlin Wall or the American-Soviet "hotline," it would be equally hard to consider this tumultuous era without the instantly recognizable National Fallout Shelter Sign. Beginning in 1961, this ubiquitous yellow and black sign with inverted triangular shapes began showing up on and in structures across the United States. The purpose of the sign was to alert the citizenry that space had been identified by the government for public shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.[ii]

Walk around any major American city today and you will still be able to see at least a few rusty Fallout Shelter Signs attached to buildings of a certain vintage.[iii] These distinctive metallic, reflective signs remain the most durable—literally and figuratively—symbol of the Cold War. But how did the sign come to be and who exactly was responsible for its creation?

Our quest to find the answers to these questions began on April 11, 2003 with a simple inquiry. Lee C. Smith of Rolling Stone magazine was writing a piece on popular culture iconography (the Smiley Face, the Peace Sign, etc.) and he wanted to know the story behind the design of Fallout Shelter Sign symbol.[iv] Much to our professional embarrassment, we did not have a comprehensive response ready and waiting for the journalist. And despite our best efforts to quickly research the issue prior to the magazine’s editorial deadline, we were unable to find what we thought would be an incredibly easy, straightforward answer. There was, quite literally, nothing out there that explained the origins of the design.[v]

The magazine article (“Signs of the Times”) that spurred this furious and fruitless research activity was published a few weeks later without any reference to the Fallout Shelter Sign symbol.[vi] Naturally, Smith moved on to other stories. CONELRAD, however, had the luxury of spending a number of years obsessively researching the issue. We are very pleased to announce that we have uncovered the complete history of this important American symbol. It is our pleasure to be able to present our findings here for the benefit of Rolling Stone and anyone else who might be interested.


Lo-Washington Daily News-FSS-12-2-61 copy
On Saturday, December 2, 1961 a deceptively modest graphic transmitted the day before by the Department of Defense to the wire services appeared in newspapers across the country heralding the new symbol that would quickly come to define an era. The caption accompanying the image in the Los Angeles Times read as follows:

FOLLOW THE ARROWS—Three yellow triangles on a circular black background will mark nationwide network of fallout shelters for more than 50 persons each, Defense Department has announced.

The full text of the official and much lengthier caption that accompanied the Fallout Shelter Sign photograph issued by the government was found by CONELRAD at the National Archives. The following words appear on the reverse side of a glossy black and white still of the sign:

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

Most newspapers regurgitated the highlights of the government-supplied text, but one photo caption writer for a Kansas daily could not resist editorializing and called the sign “grim.”[vii]


“My best salesmen are named Kennedy and Khrushchev”

--Home Fallout Shelter Salesman, 1961[viii]

The sign image published in the paper that day was but a small sidebar to a much larger story about the Kennedy administration’s ambitious plans to provide public shelter to 20 million Americans in the event of a nuclear attack. The National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program, as it was officially titled, was the President’s costly reaction to the negative public perception of home fallout shelters and pressure from civil defense hawks like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (viewed by the administration as a likely 1964 Republican candidate for president).[ix]

During Kennedy’s campaign for the White House and his first year in office, a debate over the morality of private shelters was being argued throughout the land and across the airwaves of the popular culture. The famous Twilight Zone episode The Shelter dramatized with chilling clarity the underlying fear of neighbor turning upon neighbor over access to a family fallout shelter. 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.[x]

McHugh’s comments and the reaction he incited even reached Kennedy’s inner circle. “There’s no problem here,” Robert F. Kennedy cracked to the President and his advisers at a late November 1961 meeting in Hyannis Port on the dilemma over shelters, “we can just station Father McHugh with a machine gun at every private shelter.”[xi]

The national dialogue over shelters was hitting a fever pitch around the same time that the administration was changing its approach to civil defense. President Kennedy himself stoked the concern over the issue in a significant portion of his famous Berlin speech of July 25, 1961:

President John F Kennedy1

We have another sober responsibility. To recognize the possibilities of nuclear war in the missile age, without our citizens knowing what they should do and where they should go if bombs begin to fall, would be a failure of responsibility. In May, I pledged a new start on Civil Defense. Last week, I assigned, on the recommendation of the Civil Defense Director, basic responsibility for this program to the Secretary of Defense, to make certain it is administered and coordinated with our continental defense efforts at the highest civilian level. Tomorrow, I am requesting of the Congress new funds for the following immediate objectives: to identify and mark space in existing structures--public and private--that could be used for fall-out shelters in case of attack; to stock those shelters with food, water, first-aid kits and other minimum essentials for survival; to increase their capacity; to improve our air-raid warning and fallout detection systems, including a new household warning system which is now under development; and to take other measures that will be effective at an early date to save millions of lives if needed.

In the event of an attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved--if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families--and to our country. In contrast to our friends in Europe, the need for this kind of protection is new to our shores. But the time to start is now. In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack. I know that you will want to do no less.[xii]

Kennedy’s remarks on shelters—which were embedded in the sober speech on his vow to go to the nuclear mat to protect West Berlin from Soviet aggression—sparked a boomlet in survival-mania. With the promised public shelters still months away, private fallout shelter companies saw a decided rise in interest (if not business). There were also numerous other merchandising gimmicks unleashed by the Commander-In-Chief’s official endorsement of civil defense. Aside from the expected survival accoutrements (Geiger counters, Emergency Drinking Water, etc.), films, spoken word LPs, and even pop music 45s were also released.[xiii]

The Kennedy administration itself contributed two prominent “collectibles” to the hoopla. Shortly after the Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961, the President wrote a memo to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asking for a weekly report on civil defense. The President also asked in his memo: “Do you think it would be useful for me to write a letter to every home owner in the United States giving them instructions as to what can be done on their own to provide greater security for their family?” The idea of a government mass mailing was replaced by the more economical measure of allowing Life magazine to reproduce a letter from Kennedy in their September 15, 1961 cover story on civil defense.

One can only wonder whether the administration knew how over-the-top Life would go with its presentation. The President’s letter—which serves in part as an advertisement for the magazine’s feature—has a mushroom cloud background. And the cover of the magazine that week had a rather alarming image of a man in a “civilian fallout shelter suit.” So much for calming the nation.[xiv]

The administration spent more time tinkering with the other “collectible” from this period: a 46-page yellow, black and white civil defense pamphlet eventually titled “Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About Nuclear Attack.” The first draft of the booklet was prepared by a team from Time-Life hired by the Pentagon. The ad men came up with an unrealistically optimistic document that dismayed Kennedy’s advisers. John Kenneth Gailbraith took particular exception to the fact that the pamphlet appeared to be targeted at the upper middle class (with yachts, no less!):

I am not at all attracted to a pamphlet which seeks to save the better elements of the population, but in the main writes off those who voted for you. I think it is particularly injudicious, in fact it is absolutely incredible, to have a picture of a family with a cabin cruiser saving itself by going out to sea. Very few members of the UAW can go with them…

The booklet that was subsequently published on December 30, 1961 made no mention of sea-faring suburban survivalists. It also downplayed the earlier draft’s excitement over “a new market for home shelters” that “is helpful and in keeping with the free enterprise way of meeting changing conditions in our lives.” The passage that appeared in the final version was decidedly less “rah-rah”: “A number of firms have entered the home shelter field. As in any new commercial activity there are abuses…” Indeed.

Lo-JFK Booklet-Cvr

Twenty-five million copies of the pamphlet were distributed to post offices and civil defense branches around the country, but plans for a supporting “fireside chat” by the president on civil defense were scrapped.[xv] The surviving draft written by Ted Sorensen, however, spells out the new emphasis on public shelters. In the speech that never was, Kennedy was to have stated the following on the diversity element of the project: “This will be a democratic shelter program. There can be no discrimination in civil defense between rich and poor, between home owner and apartment dwellers, between people of different religions or different ethic backgrounds.”[xvi]

The editorial evolution of the booklet and the draft of the aborted “fireside chat” are excellent showcases for how the administration’s position on civil defense changed in a very short period of time. It was at the Hyannis Port meeting referred to earlier that a discussion on the funding of new shelters—in addition to marking existing ones—took place. The budget never did materialize for the new shelters, but the intensity with which the subject was analyzed and how it gradually receded to the background of the official policy is fascinating.

Steuart Lansing Pittman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense recalled the debate in a 1970 oral history interview that is not without some bitterness.[xvii] Pittman wLo-Pittman-Imageas a 42-year-old Washington lawyer who was chosen to become the country’s first cabinet level official for civil defense. His chief responsibility coming into the position was to manage the National Fallout Shelter program. In a New York Times profile from October 30, 1961,  Pittman explained his reasons for leaving a profitable law practice to take a $20,000-a-year government job: “If I weren’t convinced that the President and Secretary McNamara were behind the program, I’d never have taken the job.”[xviii] The oral history interview makes plain that less than a month after this sunny statement, reality began to set in:

...This extension (the funding of new public shelters) of the program has never happened to this day. Most of my tenure in the job was a struggle to make it come to light to get that end of the program launched. At Hyannis Port it was very curious: Secretary McNamara went along on paper with this middle position that I just described, signed the recommendation to the President, but at the meeting at one point he quite clearly said that he really preferred stopping at marking and stocking shelters. At this point Bobby Kennedy was out playing touch football in the rain and came in dripping wet with a red shirt on in the middle of the meeting. The Joint Chiefs and twenty people were there. This was one of many important national security subjects that were being discussed over, I think, a two day period. He (RFK) discovered what was being talked about, and said that he’d give this a little thought and he didn’t think we ought to get involved in anything beyond marking and stocking shelters until we organized the country; that this was going to take intense local organization which should come first, and that there ought to be several years of that. McNamara agreed with him. (Jerome B.) Wiesner (Science Adviser to JFK) was there. He had continuing reservations about this program throughout my tenure. He made only one statement at the meeting, which was to tell the President that fallout shelters would be obsolete within five years. This was a five-year program which would be completed only at the end of five years. Obviously it made no sense whatsoever if you believed that they’d be obsolete within five years. Nobody seemed to answer him. The President didn’t say anything. I finally filled the silence with my version of why this wasn’t so and the subject was dropped.

I say this to convey the impression that this meeting seemed quite unreal to me. There wasn’t a real coming to grips with the issues of whether this kind of a program made sense over the long haul, or whether we should commit ourselves to it. The decision was finally made when I said to the President something about his May 25th statement, which had called for a continuously increasing federal financial involvement in a shelter program. He (JFK) said, “What did I say?” McNamara read him a short part of his speech which he had in the packet there, and he in effect, said, “Well, it seems to me we can’t do anything less than this middle position.” The implication being quite clear that having said this I’m not going to retreat. It was that kind of decision. So already the uncertainty had set in.

Actually, (Arthur M., Jr.) Schlesinger was the only person, other than myself, at this meeting that spoke in favor of the position that was being recommended. (Theodore C.) Sorenson spoke against it briefly. He had prepared a memorandum arguing strongly against it a few days earlier. So there was a decision made to start the nation down the path of a nationwide shelter program with major reservations and dissensions among the people around the President. I remember the President at the end, having made a decision, he turned to me, looked at me and he said, “You’ve got the most difficult job in Washington next to mine.” There was sort of nervous laughter around the room, and then he asked McNamara and (Rosewell) Gilpatric to retire with him to another room. They came back five minutes later and the President said, “Here’s how we’re going to proceed.” And said, “Mr. (Carl) Kaysen will follow this from the White House, and Mr. McNamara will pay personal attention.” I took this personally, that the President sort of looked at this inexperienced lawyer in government and said, “How is he going to do this?”, and went out with McNamara and said “How is he going to do this? And who is really going to get this done? You better be darned sure you’re involved.” I suspected he sort of threw it to McNamara to be responsible.

When we got back to the Pentagon, we sat down with each other. McNamara started laying down the law about how we’re not going to get involved in anything except what we can do at the federal level, and the responsibility of local government is not our business. I was very upset about that because it was clear to me by this time that the whole thing builds on local responsibility inspired by federal direction and support, and you won’t get anything done without it. I told McNamara I didn’t think that was possible and that it was a great mistake and he said, “Never mind. That’s how it is.”

So a piece of paper was prepared. Adam Yarmolinsky was actively involved in preparing it. This was the internal guidance later revealed to the governors and put out as a policy paper, and that had at its principal: We’re not really taking the responsibility for civil defense. We’re just doing certain parts of the job at the federal level and we’re looking to state and local to do the main thing. This was totally impractical, and was a way of retreating from the decision that was made, in my view. That began a long series of friction points between me and McNamara which resulted in his finally staying clear of the subject. Let me more or less run with it until it came to budget time. I wouldn’t see him much in between.[xix]

Whatever his misgivings, Pittman soldiered on—overseeing the shelter surveying, marking and stocking program of existing spaces—until he submitted his resignation on March 8, 1964 and returned to his private law practice (in a building that by that time presumably had a marked and stocked public fallout shelter).[xx]



The September 1st 1961 edition of the White Plains, New York newspaper, the Reporter Dispatch, proudly announced White Plains as being one of three cities chosen to participate in an “Atom Shelter Study.” Baltimore and Washington, D.C. were the other two test areas where architects under government contract would identify shelter space for 50 or more people. The enthusiastic article is noteworthy for being the very first publication that CONELRAD was able to find that references what would soon come to be known officially as the National Fallout Shelter Sign. Ten paragraphs into the story the following mention appears: “The survey teams will seek permission to enter all buildings to be surveyed…Later they will ask permission to install uniform signs being designed in Washington identifying the shelter area.”[xxi]

Lo-S-Shelter Sign copy

Before 1961 public shelters were found primarily in large urban areas and were designated haphazardly with signs that frequently featured a large “S” character. Many of these shelters were left over from the World War II era when conventional air raids were feared. Some shelters were built after 1949 when the Russians tested their first atomic bomb. There was no standardized national oversight of these public shelters. Even after the National Fallout Shelter program was well beyond the planning stages, the sign that was to be deployed to identify these spaces was treated almost as an afterthought.[xxii]

In May of 1961 Robert W. Blakeley had just returned to his Washington, D.C. Army Corps of Engineers office from a three week vacation out west. He found a note on his desk from the Deputy Chief of Engineers, Major General Keith R. Barney (1904-1977), which said, to the best of Blakeley’s recollection in an exclusive CONELRAD interview: “When you get back I want to talk to you about producing some posters on railroad board for a shelter program that is being considered.”[xxiii]

Blakeley-1970s copy 
At this stage in his career, Blakeley, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War was a high-level civilian with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He had been recruited into the Corps from the Veterans Administration where he had worked after his military service and some study in Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. At the time that he was drafted into his Fallout Shelter Sign mission, Blakeley’s official title was Director of the Administrative Logistics Support Function. To say that he was very accomplished in his field would be an understatement – he had an extensive staff and was responsible for more than 60 engineering operations around the world. More than 40 years later the now retired Blakeley is at a loss for how, at his level, he was targeted for what he considered to be merely an “Action Officer” (or Project Manager) task.[xxiv]

But targeted he was and when Blakeley entered the Major General’s office later that morning, the “grand old man” asked him to explain what railroad board was. After Blakeley’s brief tutorial on the material, Barney explained the mission, “Well, from what I understand, we’re going to do a survey program to identify shelters for people throughout the country. It’s not well defined, but all these people are going to have to have some way of knowing where these shelters are. What do you think we should do?”

Lacking an immediate answer for the Major General, Blakeley considered the idea over the next several weeks in a kind of back-burner fashion. It wasn’t until a Lieutenant Colonel from the Civil Works function contacted him, that the sign became a primary focus. The man, whose name Blakeley doesn’t recall, was a liaison to Civil Defense for the shelter program. Blakeley and the liaison conducted “bull sessions” regarding what was required of such a sign. And at a certain point, Blakeley recalled, the pair approached their deliverable from “the point of view that whatever we developed, it would have to be useable in downtown New York City, Manhattan, when all the lights are out and people are on the street and don’t know where to go.” With this criterion in mind, they both concluded that railroad board was not going to fit the bill: “Railroad poster boards were not going to work in downtown Manhattan because they don’t have telephone poles (to post the signs on).” Left unsaid was the obvious: Railroad board would disintegrate instantaneously in the heat of the fires that would follow an atomic bombing.

With the ludicrous notion of railroad board off the table, Blakeley met with some Corps graphics people and discussed the options. From the outset of this phase of the sign’s development, he was opposed to using the existing radiation danger symbol trefoil design because of a perception that it was not used in a consistent manner. However, by 1960 the radiation symbol had been completely standardized and was, indeed, registered by the American Standards Association (now the American National Standards Institute).

So Blakeley sent representatives from his team to the design vendor, Blair, Inc., a graphic arts company then located at Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax, Virginia. Blair, Inc. frequently worked on government contracts and the ideas generated in Blakeley’s office were shared with their designers. Blakeley stated to CONELRAD that he provided the following basic guidelines to his people to convey to Blair, Inc.: “I gave them the fact that it had to be a simple reproducible image…and I did say ‘tell them that in the design they had to have a place for us to print directional arrows.’” card-front Blair, Inc. was also instructed by Blakeley that the sign “had to be something that would get people’s attention and give them direction to the location.” To this end, Blakeley said that he asked a representative from the company what the best color combination was for this purpose. The response that came back as quoted by Blakeley was: “orange or yellow and black is the one that is most dominantly used in the graphics field.” He added “And I said ‘if that’s right, let’s do that and it was that simple.”[xxv]

Blair, Inc. was founded in 1952 by transplanted Chicagoan Shy S. Greenspan. Greenspan was a decorated veteran of World War II who was recalled to serve at Fort Belvoir in Virginia during the Korean War. Bob Love, a Blair employee who started with the company shortly after the Fallout Shelter Sign contract was completed in 1961, recalled in an interview with CONELRAD that he was confident that Greenspan himself would have been involved in the work. Blair’s art department in those days, Love said, was “seven or eight people” and Greenspan was “hands-on,” so it was logical to Love that the company founder would have been involved in this project. Mr. Greenspan retired from Blair in 1984 and passed away at the age of 85 on September 3, 2000.[xxvi]


Blair Jackson, Greenspan’s daughter and the present co-owner of the company, conveyed to CONELRAD via her husband and business partner, Scott Jackson that she recalled her father speaking fondly about the company’s involvement in the design of the Fallout Shelter Sign. Ms. Jackson directly stated her personal impressions about this important symbol in an e-mail to CONELRAD: “I do remember the mixed feelings I had of, one, the excitement and pride in seeing the fallout shelter signs in every building and, two, the warning to be alert and realize there was a designated area to head to in case of emergency.”[xxvii]

Blakeley remembered that Blair, Inc. “came back with a number of preliminary sketches. I eliminated all but about six of them. And one of them did include a variation on the (radiation warning) trefoil without the center dot.” He decided to include it in his official presentation portfolio because he felt certain that someone in the approval chain would ask about such a design option.[xxviii] Ironically, despite years of debate over whether the Fallout Shelter Sign was simply a derivative of the radiation warning symbol, it could well be that it was inspired by a more obvious source: “Hornung’s Handbook of Designs & Devices” first published in 1932 and reprinted several times since.[xxix]

The book, a seminal graphics reference work widely used at the time, features a triangular design identical to the Fallout Shelter Sign symbol.[xxx] In fact, when the sign was submitted for certification with the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) patent division this similarity did not go unnoticed by the government trademark attorneys. In a November 6, 1961 response from JAG to the General Counsel for the Chief of Engineers the following was pointed out:

The circle and triangle arrangement is not new and original. Fig. 349 in Hornung, Handbook of Designs and Devices (1946) shows this same circle-triangle arrangement.[xxxi]

Not mentioned by the government attorneys in their memo is that an endnote in the 1946 edition of Hornung’s book explains that the triangular shape arrangement seen in “Fig. 349” is a representation of “an ancient symbol for the Godhead.”[xxxii]

When asked about the other ideas Blair, Inc. came up with, Blakeley can only remember one: “one of them…showed a family of three, holding hands, moving graphically across the center…” In a subsequent e-mail he expanded upon this description slightly: “[it] showed a family of three moving in depth perspective to a shelter, had a small trefoil, without the center dot, in shadow background.” Unfortunately, Blair, Inc. no longer retains records from this era of its history and neither does the U.S. government, so we are left only with the intriguing word picture illustrated by Blakeley.[xxxiii]

Blair Inc.’s design work sat in Blakeley’s office gathering dust for about a month during which time Colonel Warren S. Everett (1910-2001), the newly named director of the National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program, set up shop next doWarrenSEverettor to the engineer. Blakeley arranged this office proximity to better be able to hand off his Fallout Shelter Sign project to the Colonel.  “I kept telling Everett that I really ought to give this [the sign project] to him and let him finish it off. He said, ‘well, give me time, I’ve got to get my staff going, we’ve got to get this whole program up and running…’ I said, ‘well, someone’s got to approve something before we can go ahead and work it.’”

Not long after this conversation a meeting at the Pentagon was suddenly called by the Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army, Powell Pierpoint (1922-1998), to formally review the sign options. Blakeley recounted how he got the word that an evening meeting had been scheduled: “One day, I went home early and I went to the pool with my kids -- we belonged to a community pool a half block from my house… My wife came down and said, ‘Col. Everett’s on the phone and says you have to be at the Pentagon for a meeting at 7 P.M. tonight.’”

Blakeley, slightly irritated by the inconvenience of having to fight Washington rush hour traffic, instructed Everett to gather the Blair, Inc. art from his office and to meet him at the Pentagon for the design review. In attendance at the meeting were just the three men: Blakeley, Everett and Pierpoint.

Blakeley remembered the meeting clearly and laughed several times in describing the circumstances to CONELRAD: “While we were in there at the dog and pony show, we had everything set up and we were going around and he (Pierpoint) looked at me and he said, ‘I’m used to vacuum cleaner salesmen, what do you recommend?’ And that stuck in my mind forever. I’m not sure if he was upset or he was just trying to tell me to get on with the program.”

After briefing Pierpoint and running through the different options for about ten minutes, Blakeley recommended the trefoil-like design because of its simplicity and its easily recognized colors. The Assistant Secretary then said “OK, go with it” and dismissed the meeting. It was this quickly deliberated decision that eventually led to hundreds of thousands of yellow and black signs across the country. When asked if he thought the Special Assistant Secretary realized the significance of his ruling, Blakeley said “I don’t think any of us did.” Pierpoint died in 1998 and apparently never committed his recollections of his pivotal role in Cold War history to print.[xxxiv]


After the Fallout Shelter Sign was “green lit” by Assistant Secretary Pierpoint, Blakeley returned to some earlier ideas that he had about utilizing the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company’s (better known as 3M, the company responsible for Post-It Notes) talents to mass produce signage that would have the maximum visibility and durability that would be needed for World War III. Blakeley’s inspiration to use 3M can be traced back to his earliest “bull sessions” with the Lieutenant Colonel about how the sign would be used:

During those discussions with that Lieutenant Colonel, we got talking about the pits of New York. We talked about immigrants; we talked about school children, in terms of need of quick recognition in that area. I do remember the discussion that led me and Everett to that reflective thing. I told him that I had been thinking about it and if nobody could see in downtown - what would a person have on their person in most cases that would help them find their way. We concluded that at least half the people in this country smoked at that time and therefore a cigarette lighter might be the only illuminating factor. So we thought in terms of if a cigarette lighter is lit, what can we see and how far.

It was the commonplace green traffic signs that seemed to provide the kind of reflectivity that Blakeley was seeking. He later learned that these particular signs used 3M’s patented sheeting technology. “I got a hold of Minnesota Mining and told them I wanted to talk to someone who knew something about these signs that they produce for around the country. And they had a man who came in to see me. He brought me materials. Later, I went to St. Paul (Minnesota) and went through their factory operations and learned how they produced the sheeting.”[xxxv]

CD Test Edition

Incredibly, the government was too cheap to put much funding into the research and development of the soon-to-be ubiquitous sign, so Blakeley was reduced to performing his own tests which he recounted in his CONELRAD interview:

Didn’t have any budget to put it [the materials] into a lab or anything of this sort to start playing, so whatever I collected from Minnesota Mining and from other discussions around the like, I took them home and I also found some paints that were reflective and I slopped those on a piece of wood. I was talking to my daughter just yesterday about this and she reminded me that what we did was we went down to the basement (with the lights out) and had them (the pieces of wood) set up and we were checking them with flashlights. And then later on we took the stuff out in the field and threw mud on it and water on it.

From these no-frills experiments, Blakeley was able to start writing up specifications for a potential vendor to produce the signs.[xxxvi]



With the approval of the design of the sign out of the way, Blakeley remained in the picture a while longer to work through some of the lingering problems that needed to be solved prior to mass production and handing off the contracting responsibilities to the Chief of Procurement at the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers:

After I had I had helped the office develop what we thought were going to be the signs and the needs, it became apparent that we were not talking about directional signs like right and left. But we had to have multi-directional arrows to show people to go up and down stairs and things of that sort. Fortuitously, when I had given them my initial notes and sketches, I kept a section on the top that showed an image here and arrows down below that I needed a space where we could print. But it bugged me because I got to thinking about the logistics of being able to store and issue signs and arrows and we even talked about capacity areas on the poster in those days that would tell how many could be housed in a particular [shelter] area. The multiplicity of trying to stock and handle all those things just blew my mind. While I was talking with the Minnesota Mining [3M] people we came up with the idea of small arrows that would show right, left, up and down that would be permanent adhesives that would be stuck on whatever sign we came up with. And we did the same thing with “capacity.” Well, that was going well and I wrote a specification based on a lot of material I got from the Minnesota Mining that would give us an opportunity to put a contract bid on the street to have X number of signs based on the design produced.


At this point it seemed like a foregone conclusion that 3M was the ideal company to meet all of the specialized demands of producing the Fallout Shelter Sign, but at the eleventh hour a competing company, Alfray Products, Inc. of Coshocton, Ohio, protested the proposed contract award. It turned out that Alfray could produce the signs using a cheaper technique than 3M’s proprietary sheeting process (“Scotchlite”). “I ended up in the Pentagon trying to defend why I had specified sheeting [for the sign],” recalled Blakeley with a trace of irritation in his voice. “Well, we backed off the sheeting and went for beads-on-paint [the cheaper competing process]. And that outfit got some of it [the contract] and Minnesota Mining, it turned out, still had their big production facility in Alabama and could [also] produce beads-on-paint. So that’s one of the little horror stories that went with getting it ready.”[xxxvii]

In announcing Alfray’s piece of the Fallout Shelter Sign pie on February 26, 1962, the Coshocton (Ohio) Tribune made certain not to mention the more famous out-of-town 3M:

Local Firm to Produce Fallout Shelter Signs

Alfray Products, Inc., North Fourteenth St., was awarded the contract to manufacture a million Type 2 fallout shelter signs, Alfred J. Riley, president of the firm, reported today.

Production will start in seven days on the signs to be manufactured for the U.S. Army Engineering District, Baltimore Corps of Engineers. The project is scheduled for completion in eight weeks.

Thirty-six companies throughout the nation submitted bids to do the work, but the local firm was the lowest bidder…[xxxviii]

Alfred J. Riley, the president of the company mentioned in the article and the then-mayor of Coshocton, died in 1995 at the age of 78. Alfray Products, Inc. no longer exists.[xxxix]

Bob Schoonover was a young chemical engineer at 3M only a few years out of college when he was tasked with “scaling-up production” of the larger aluminum Type I (exterior) Fallout Shelter Sign (Alfray, the other vendor, produced the smaller Type II sign which was made of steel and used in interior spaces). Lo-schoonover1963 CONELRAD located the now retired Schoonover and asked him to tell us about the experience from his unique perspective as “3M’s Fallout Shelter Guy.” In response to our question about what it was like to be presented with such an odd project, Schoonover said via e-mail: “In 1961 that product didn't seem quite as ‘unusual’ as it might 45 years later; and WWII had ended with the use of nuclear weapons ‘only’ 16 years earlier. After 3M won the bid I had to become more familiar with the specifics of the sign, but the design and colors of the Fallout Shelter Sign didn't seem unusual at all.”[xl]

When asked to describe how the Type I Fallout Shelter Sign was produced, Schoonover’s command of the ancient details is nothing short of impressive:

The process that I recall was that the aluminum substrate was provided in roll form (wide and long) by Alcoa from a plant in the quad cities area (Iowa and Illinois); coated black; sheeted in Alabama and delivered to our Guin, Alabama plant. 3M screen printed the yellow portion, dropped the beads onto the wet yellow coating and then cured (dried) the yellow coating.

Before the company rolled out what Schoonover estimates to be hundreds of thousands of signs, they produced samples for the government: “We did make prototypes to demonstrate that we had the capability, as well as to demo the product.”[xli] It was a demonstration sign that was used for the very first sign unveiling ceremony at the Westchester County Building in White Plains, New York at 148 Martine Avenue on October 4, 1961. That first sign, designating a shelter capacity of 1,730, was important enough to warrant a curtain call for its chief architect from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.[xlii]



“Well anyhow, I thought everything was going well,” Robert W. Blakeley recalled of the sign’s progress through the bureaucracy, “and I got call from (Col.) Everett one day and he said, ‘somebody’s gotta be in White Plains, New York for a press conference. They’re going to have a press conference after the first posting of the sign. Can you do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have to go to New York anyhow, so sure, I’ll do it.’ So, I went up there and met with the [man in charge of the facilities] and we were running a little bit late and he said, ‘let’s go down the backstairs to get to the conference room.’ So we started down the stairs and we saw a (interior Fallout Shelter) sign on the wall and he said, ‘those damned kids have been in here again!’ They had pulled the arrows off and put them in the wrong direction. I about perished because those arrows were supposed to go on and stay permanently. So I got back to Minnesota Mining (3M) and told them that we had a problem and then I advised the contracting officer.”

The exterior Fallout Shelter Sign, Blakeley recalled, was already posted on the building, but “draped” for the ceremonial purposes of the small (“I don’t think there were more than a dozen people there”) gathering. He remembered that he was recognized as representing Washington, but that he was not asked to speak. After the sign was uncovered Blakeley said, laughing, “We gave a sigh of relief and went home.”[xliii]

Months later Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Abraham Ribicoff, complained in a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that the Fallout Shelter Sign looked too much like the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) radiation symbol and that he was worried about the risks that this similarity posed (“…in the event of nuclear attack, some people might mistake the shelter sign as a danger warning and avoid entering an approved shelter.”).

But this was no longer Blakeley’s headache and Assistant Secretary of Defense Steuart Pittman wrote Ribicoff back on behalf of Secretary McNamara. Pittman’s letter detailing the pains that were taken to prove that the new sign could not be confused with the existing radiation sign included a reference to a Human Factors Research Psychologist named L.E. Baker. Unfortunately, no files from these studies exist and the psychologist who conducted them, Dr. Lynn Erland Baker, died in 1992. According to a biographical reference book Baker was born in 1909 and at the time of the Fallout Shelter Sign development he was “U.S. Army chief psychologist.”[xliv]

In a later memo, seemingly assuaging the concerns raised internally, civil defense official Gerald R. Gallagher wrote a memo for the Director of Federal Assistance, William P. Durkee, assuring him that representatives of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had “made no objection to the use of [the Fallout Shelter Sign] symbol and indicated that there was, in fact, no actual similarity when the “Radiation Area” sign and the “Fallout Shelter” sign were viewed side by side.”[xlv]

Of course, the White Plains ceremony was just the first sign posting (the second, as cited in the JAG file, was at Holabird Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland).[xlvi] As the 1960s wore on, close to a million signs would be affixed to buildings and in hallways and lobbies around the country.[xlvii] In the early years, mayors and governors and other public officials would exploit these sign hanging events for their own political gain just as peace activists would use the sign for protest purposes.[xlviii]


And to make absolutely certain that no one missed the purpose of the new sign - the government launched a public awareness campaign that included, among other things, a radio PSA in which a woman talked to her psychiatrist about the new civil defense symbol. There were also television spots, billboards, pamphlets, and subway and bus ads.[xlix] But soon enough the yellow and black sign simply faded into the background of everyday life.


The Cold War may be long over, but the handiwork of Robert W. Blakeley and Bob Schoonover can still be seen on buildings across America (the government never had a formal program for removal)[l] and in “cameo” appearances in movies and on television programs. The Fallout Shelter Sign is even featured on the cover of Bob Dylan’s classic “Bringing It All Back Home” album from 1965.[li] And a yellowing newspaper advertisement clipping for The Who’s 1973 rock tour that appropriated the signage icon resides, rather improbably, in the official Judge Advocate General’s “certification mark” file in Arlington, Virginia.[lii]

Also buried deep within this file is a memo dated October 12, 1961 that gives credit to the person who was chiefly responsible for the iconic sign. The simple line of text states for the record that “The design was perfected by Mr. R.W. Blakeley…”

blakeley-credited-10-1961 (1) 
Decades later the retired engineer remains humble when asked about the reaction of his friends and family to his unique place in Cold War history:

Well, frankly, I’ve never had a lot of discussion (regarding the sign). My daughter remembers our episode in testing materials. And when they (his children) were young, we’d go down the street and one of the kids would say, ‘hey, Dad, there’s one of your signs.’ But you know, other than that it’s just like many of the other things that happen in life. It’s just one of those routine things. I don’t know if I’ve ever had an occasion to tell anybody that I was involved in it because I don’t think it’s ever been high on my priorities. I guess I have never viewed it as significant item such as it apparently is.[liii]



At this point the reader may be left wondering how we found the answers that eluded the reporter from Rolling Stone and at least a few others who have pursued the origins of the Fallout Shelter Sign. Well, not unlike the sign itself, the key to unraveling the story was hidden in plain sight from the beginning. On most Fallout Shelter Signs (and the one that resides in our office) there is the following fine print: “Not to be used or reproduced without Department of Defense permission.” From day one this should have been a red flag to us that the sign was registered with some legal authority with a corresponding paper trail explaining its development. Unfortunately, it took us another few years to realize this point and to finally reach our “Eureka!” moment. Instead, we contacted the Department of Defense to ask about the ownership of the sign. This was, of course, an utter waste of time.[liv]

It was not until 2006 when we were performing a top-to-bottom review of all of the materials that we had amassed on our subject that we saw the thread of the lead that would prove to be the roadmap to completing our research. In one of the documents related to the radiation warning symbol we noticed that the symbol was referenced as having been accepted by the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST).[lv] It immediately dawned on us that the same might be true of the Fallout Shelter Sign and we quickly sent an e-mail inquiry to NIST.

About a week later a response came back from a librarian who stated that the sign was not on file with her agency, but was in the online database of the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office. The information provided in the U.S. Patents and Trademark record was, of course, a goldmine of data – particularly because it named the JAG attorney of record for the most recent renewal of the sign’s Certification Mark (in 2003) – a Mr. Peter Nyce, Jr. An e-mail inquiry was sent to Mr. Nyce asking, among other things, whether the name(s) of the person(s) responsible for the sign might be included in the original Certification Mark request from the early 1960s.

A comprehensive reply came back a day later from Nyce’s colleague, J. Scott Chafin, the Trademark and Copyright Attorney in the Regulatory Law and Intellectual Property Division of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army. Mr. Chafin provided the name from the file of the man who “perfected” the design of the Fallout Shelter Sign, “Mr. R.W. Blakeley.” As luck would have it, Mr. Blakeley was still among the living and was interviewed on the telephone a few days later. In this interview he provided details of the design evolution of the sign that, heretofore, have never been published. Mr. Blakeley’s recollections provided another crucial lead – to the vendor that prepared the mock-ups of the design options of the Fallout Shelter Sign, Blair, Inc. This and other finer points helped make this story the complete picture that it is. We could not have have written it without the enthusiastic cooperation of Robert W. Blakeley.



Researching the definitive history of the Fallout Shelter Sign was a lengthy, complicated endeavor and one that generated piles of documentation (and no shortage of dead-ends). Consequently, there are many sources that must be cited in this section. CONELRAD’s investigation also led us to meet a number of dedicated officials, archivists and librarians who aided in our quest. In some cases these information professionals were utterly baffled by the nature of our inquiry, but they helped anyway.

As mentioned in the main article, the impetus for our project began in 2003 when Rolling Stone magazine reporter Lee C. Smith contacted CONELRAD for input on a piece about the origins of popular symbols (the Happy Face, the Peace Sign, etc.). Smith was seeking guidance regarding the evolution of the Fallout Shelter Sign symbol. Unfortunately, our crash effort to help the reporter failed miserably and Smith’s subsequent article omitted any reference to the famous yellow and black sign. Because it was Smith’s question that set us off on our multi-year quest, it is only fitting that he be thanked first.

We would also like to thank Robert W. Blakeley, formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for his willingness to speak with us in detail about his critical role in the development and refinement of the actual sign. Mr. Blakeley was the man we had been searching for all along, but we didn’t even know his name until the very last phase of our research. We found Mr. Blakeley’s name by researching the Fallout Shelter certification file maintained by the Judge Advocate General. We are deeply indebted to the folks at JAG for helping us in this regard. Bob Schoonover, formerly with 3M, provided an invaluable perspective on the production side of the Fallout Shelter Sign.

Michael J. Broadhead of the Army Corps of Engineers History Office provided invaluable guidance in filling in some of the gaps in the story of the Fallout Shelter Sign.

Dr. Paul W. Frame’s research and guidance regarding the origins and evolution of the radiation warning symbol was essential. Dr. Frame is the Director of Professional Training at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).

As always, the staff at the National Archives (including the Eisenhower and Kennedy Presidential Libraries) was incredibly helpful in providing key documents related to both the Fallout Shelter sign and U.S. civil defense in general.

Eric Green founder and curator of the amazing online Civil Defense Museum provided the Fallout Shelter Sign “awareness” images used in this article. Those images and hundreds of other civil defense photos and documents are available for viewing on Eric’s site.

And special thanks to Blair Jackson at Blair, Inc. for speaking with us and providing her recollection and some archival images from the company. Thanks, too, to Bob Love at Blair, Inc. for speaking with us.


Additional Reading: CONELRAD’s interview with Robert Murtha, a man who helped post Fallout Shelter Signs during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[i] Robert W. Blakeley oral history conducted by Frank N. Schubert, April 9, 1986 and June 25, 1986; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers History Office Archive; p. 63.

[ii] Evidence of 1961 “first use” of the sign found in: Memorandum RE: Statutory Rights to Design of Fallout Shelter Sign from William R. Orlandi, Deputy General Counsel, Office of Engineers, November 21, 1961 to the Chief, Patents Division, Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army. From the Capacity Fallout Shelter Sign Certification Mark file maintained by U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army.

[iii] For current examples of Fallout Shelter Signs still posted in major cities see CONELRAD’s “Real Life Fallout Shelter Sign Sightings” Facebook Gallery.

[iv] Lee C. Smith e-mail to Bill Geerhart, April 11, 2003. Smith had been referred to Geerhart by Cold War history professor and author Laura McEnaney.

[v] As the totality of this article demonstrates, the full answer to Mr. Smith’s inquiry was not readily available in any published form in 2003.

[vi] Lee C. Smith, “Signs of the Times,” Rolling Stone magazine (RS # 992), May 15, 2003, pp. 119-120.

[vii] Examples of the announcement of the Fallout Shelter Sign include: “Shelter Sign,” Washington Daily News, December 2, 1961; “Follow the Arrows,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1961; “Shelter Question,” December 3, 1961, New York Times; “A-Shelter Sign,” Racine Journal-Times, December 2, 1961; “Fallout Shelter Sign,” Portsmouth Herald, December 2, 1961; for “grim” reference see “Sign of the Times,” Hutchinson News, December 4, 1961; For official caption of government release of Fallout Shelter Sign photograph see National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter, NARA), College Park, Maryland, Records Group 397-MA-19, Folder 27, 27-S-11, Shelter Survey, Department of Defense. Note: The text of the caption closely mirrors that of a draft Fallout Shelter Sign Fact Sheet which can be viewed here:

[viii] “Civil Defense: Boom to Bust,” Time magazine, May 18, 1962. The name of the businessman is Frank F. Norton, president of the National Shelter Association and owner of the Atomic Shelter Corp.

[ix] John M. Goshko, “$93 Million U.S. Hunt for Shelters Started,” Washington Post, December 2, 1961. For the Rockefeller reference and an excellent history of the origins of the fallout shelter program see Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1983), pp. 307-314.

[x] L.C. McHugh, “Ethics in the Shelter Doorway,” America, September 30, 1961. For more on McHugh see:

[xi] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), p. 749.

[xii] President John F. Kennedy, “Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis,” July 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. To view and listen to the speech see:

[xiii] For examples of some of the more absurd civil defense accessories see Edward Zuckerman, The Day After World War III (New York: Viking, pp. 137-138).

[xiv] Life magazine, September 15, 1961; Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About Nuclear Attack, For more on the JFK Life issue, see:

[xv] Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, U.S. Government Printing Office, O—621904, 1961, 46 pages. Civil Defense Fireside Chat – 1961, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Theodore Sorenson Papers, Box 30, Civil Defense. For more on the civil defense booklet, see: For more on the Fireside Chat, see:

[xvi] See above citation for “Fireside Chat.”

[xvii] For reference on civil defense budget see Fred Kaplan, Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 314 (Kaplan describes how the Kennedy administration’s total civil defense budget request of $695 million was “whittled down” by Congress to just $80 million by the summer of 1962); Pittman’s bitterness over how he was stymied in his role in the Kennedy administration is a subjective opinion, but one that we feel is clear from reading the entire oral history interview.

[xviii] “Director Chosen for Civil Dense,” New York Times, August 31, 1961; “Molder of Civil Defense, Steuart Lansing Pittman,” New York Times, October 30, 1961.

[xix] Steuart L. Pittman oral history interview by William W. Moss, September 18, 1970, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, pp. 6-8.

[xx] Jack Raymond, “U.S. Civil Defense Director Resigns,” New York Times, March 9, 1964. Note: In a December 19, 2003 e-mail response from Pittman’s secretary, Linda Loomis, to Bill Geerhart, she quoted her boss as saying “If I was involved in decisions on the fallout shelter sign, I have no recollection of it…”

[xxi] “White Plains Selected for Atom Shelter Study,” Reporter Dispatch, September 1, 1961.

[xxii] For description of pre-National Fallout Shelter Program shelters and signage see the report “Status of Civil Defense in America’s Largest Cities,” American Municipal Association, Washington, D.C., November 1954. For reference to WWII-era shelter signs see “CD Head Fends Questions on Closed Dupont Shelter,” Washington Post, June 1, 1963. The “afterthought” nature of the handling of the sign is evidenced in Blakeley’s narrative of how he came to be chosen to head up its development.

[xxiii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. For biographical information on M.G. Keith Barney see: “Gen. K.R. Barney, of Army Engineers (Obituary),” Washington Post, January 13, 1977.

[xxiv] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. Note: In Blakeley’s 1986 oral history interview for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he stated the following when asked why he might have been chosen for the Fallout Shelter Sign project: “Well, it initially came because they saw it as a printing matter because of that railroad board. But that was not the solution to the problem. When I found out they didn’t have criteria (for the sign), I created my own criteria.” -- Robert W. Blakeley oral history conducted by Frank N. Schubert, April 9, 1986 and June 25, 1986; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers History Office Archive; p. 65.

[xxv] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. For radiation symbol reference see “Additional Comments on the Development of the Radiation Warning Symbol,” by Saul Harris, a paper contained in the book by Ronald L. Kathren and Paul L. Ziemer, Health Physics: A Backward Glance (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980), p. 108.

[xxvi] Detail on founding date of Blair, Inc. derived from Shy S. Greenspan biographical material provided to CONELRAD by the current co-owner of the company, Blair Jackson; other biographical details, including date of death, derived from the following: “Shy S. Greenspan, Commercial Artist (Obituary),” Washington Post, September 8, 2000; Details on size of Blair, Inc.’s art department and Shy S. Greenspan’s “hands-on” worth habits derived from an August 22, 2006 interview with Blair, Inc. employee Bob Love conducted by Bill Geerhart. Mr. Love started with the company in October of 1961.

[xxvii] Scott Jackson e-mail to Bill Geerhart, August 15, 2006; Blair Jackson e-mail to Bill Geerhart, August 31, 2006.

[xxviii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xxix] The debate over whether the Fallout Shelter Sign symbol was influenced by the radiation warning symbol seems to have been started by Saul Harris in a paragraph in his paper “Additional Comments on the Development of the Radiation Warning Symbol” which appeared in the book by Ronald L. Kathren and Paul L. Ziemer, Health Physics: A Backward Glance (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980), p. 108. Harris’s assertion that “the original symbol proposed for the fallout shelter program was the standard radiation symbol, and in red and yellow” is directly contradicted by the comments to CONELRAD by Robert W. Blakeley. Biographical notes on Harris (who died in 1983) that accompany a description of his papers at the University of Maryland state that he worked for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (DHEW) from 1961 to 1972. It is possible that Harris’s claim re: the Fallout Shelter Sign stems from the belated 1962 complaint from DHEW Secretary Abraham Ribicoff to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that the existing Fallout Shelter Sign too closely resembled the radiation warning symbol. See reference to this in the main body of the article. For biographical information on Harris see:

[xxx] Clarence P. Hornung, Hornung’s Handbook of Designs and Devices, Second Revised Edition (New York: Dover Publications, 1946), p. 39, figure 349. Steven Heller, former art director for the New York Times, confirmed in an April 20, 2010 e-mail to Bill Geerhart the prevalence of the book: “Yes, the Hornung book was very well paged in its day and after.” Bob Love stated in an April 20, 2010 telephone interview with Bill Geerhart that he does not remember seeing the book in the Blair, Inc. offices in the early 1960s, but added that he could not rule out its use either.

[xxxi] Memorandum RE: Statutory Rights to Design of Fallout Shelter Sign from Lt. Col. George F. Westerman, JAGC, Chief, Patents Division to General Counsel, Chief of Engineers, November 6, 1961. From the Capacity Fallout Shelter Sign Certification Mark file maintained by U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army.

[xxxii] Clarence P. Hornung, Hornung’s Handbook of Designs and Devices, Second Revised Edition (New York: Dover Publications, 1946), p. 207.

[xxxiii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. Per co-owner of Blair, Inc., Blair Jackson in an August 31, 2006 e-mail to Bill Geerhart: “We, presently, do not have any info relating to the design of the fallout shelter symbol in the 1960s. The company moved twice in its 54 years and old files were then discarded.” A November 19, 2003 National Archives and Records Administration e-mail to Bill Geerhart described a limited number of textual materials related to the National Fallout Shelter Program, but there were no “mock-ups” of other versions of the sign. The only material the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers retains on the development of the Fallout Shelter Sign is the oral history with Robert W. Blakeley previously cited.

[xxxiv] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. Biographical information on Col. Warren S. Everett and confirmation that he was the Director of the National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program in 1961 derived from Who’s Who in the World, 1991-1992 (Wilmette, IL: Marquis, 1992), p. 315 and obituary published on the Association of Graduates USMA website (www.aog.usma,edu/class/crmp/2004/bios/everett.htm). Confirmation of Powell Pierpoint’s position as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army from Michael J. Broadhead, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, History Office, in an e-mail to Bill Geerhart dated August 30, 2006. Biographical information on Powell Pierpoint derived from “Deaths, Pierpoint, Powell,” New York Times, November 20, 1998.

[xxxv] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xxxvi] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xxxvii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. The Annual Statistical Report for the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, Fiscal Year 1962 issued June 30, 1962, p. 12, spells out the initial “Shelter Sign Contracts” in great detail: Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (3M) was awarded a $354,000 contract to produce 400,000 “Outside Type I Aluminum” 14” x 20” signs at a unit cost per sign of $0.88500. Alfray Products, Inc. was awarded a $345,800 contract to produce 1 million “Inside Type II Steel” 10” x 14” signs at a unit cost of $0.34580 per sign. Elman Labels of Baltimore, Maryland was awarded a $750 contract to produce 1 million “Marking Stickers (on) Sensitized Paper” at a unit cost of $0.00075 per sticker. According to the 1963 edition of the Statistical Report, p. 13, several other companies were also awarded slices of the Fallout Shelter Sign pie including Nidical, Inc. of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, Selecto-Flash, Inc. of East Orange, New Jersey and American Art Works of Ohio—a subcontract to Alfray, Products, Inc. 3M continued in fiscal year 1963 to have the largest contract at $240, 000 for the production of 250,000 additional Type I signs.

[xxxviii] “Local Firm to Produce Fallout Shelter Signs,” the Coshocton Tribune, February 26, 1962.

[xxxix] Alfred J. Riley, Obituary, Coshocton Tribune, November 1, 1998. Directory and Internet searches for the company yielded no current listings for the company.

[xl] Robert J. Schoonover’s connection to the production of the Fallout Shelter Sign was initially determined through an entry in the Fall 2005 online edition of the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology Chemical, Engineering and Materials Science Alumni magazine, p.13. In his Class Notes update Schoonover refers to his responsibilities as the company’s chief Fallout Shelter Sign production expert and how he became known as “The Fallout Shelter Sign Guy.” Bill Geerhart interviewed him via e-mail on August 22, 2006 and August 23, 2006.

[xli] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert J. Schoonover August 22, 2006; Schoonover’s estimate of the number of signs made by 3M is accurate. According to the Annual Statistical Reports from the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 3M was contracted to produce 400,000 Type I signs in fiscal year 1962 and an additional 250,000 in fiscal year 1963.

[xlii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xliii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xliv] Ribicoff-Pittman correspondence RE: Fallout Shelter Sign and Radiation Symbol, March 20, 1962; March 31, 1962; NARA, Records Group: 397, Box: 105, Folder: Shelter Signs. Biographical information on Dr. Lynn Erland Baker derived from the following resources: American Men and Women of Science (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1973), p. 98; February 2, 2004 e-mail from an alumni representative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to Bill Geerhart confirmed Baker’s date of death as May 8, 1992 with no surviving family.

[xlv] Memorandum RE: “National Fallout Shelter Signs and Symbols,” February 6, 1962 from Gerald R. Gallagher to William P. Durkee; NARA, Records Group: 397, Box 105; Folder: Shelter Signs.

[xlvi] Reference to the October 4, 1961 “first use” of the sign at the Westchester County Building in White Plains and the “first use in commerce” at the Holabird Elementary School No. 229 on October 11, 1961 found in: Memorandum RE: Statutory Rights to Design of Fallout Shelter Sign from William R. Orlandi, Deputy General Counsel, Office of Engineers, November 21, 1961 to the Chief, Patents Division, Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army. From the Capacity Fallout Shelter Sign Certification Mark file maintained by U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army. Note: CONELRAD was curious to learn whether these first two signs still existed and contacted representatives of the Westchester County Building and the Holabird Elementary School (now Holabird Academy). Per William Murphy who worked in Westchester County Emergency Operations for many years, the… Per Holabird Academy Principal Lindsay D. Krey, the sign was taken down during the summer of 2009 and now resides in a trophy case in their lobby (e-mail from Lindsay D. Krey to Bill Geerhart, April 22, 2010).

[xlvii] According to the 1965 Annual Statistical Report for the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, the number of exterior signs posted as of June 30, 1965 was 140,000 and the number of interior signs was 475,000.

[xlviii] Examples of sign markings as political events include: “First Fallout Shelter Area,” Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, January 13, 1963 (on the front page of the newspaper there is a photograph of Lancaster, Ohio Mayor Walter Kaurneyer overseeing a sign posting); “Fallout Shelter,” Ironwood Daily Globe, October 19, 1962 (Ironwood, MI Mayor Pro Tem Stanley Nezworski is seen in a photograph posting a Fallout Shelter Sign); “Mark Shelters,” Manitowoc Herald-Times, January 24, 1963 (Manitowoc, WI Mayor Robert Rand presided over the first Fallout Shelter Sign marking in his county. For other examples see: Examples of Fallout Shelter Sign protests can be found here:

[xlix] Memorandum RE: “Proposal for Shelter Sign Awareness Campaign,” March 3, 1962, from Omer D. King, Jr. to Mr. Smith; NARA, Records Group: 397, Box 105; Folder: Shelter Signs.

[l] To this day, a reference can be found on the FEMA website to “public buildings…designated as fallout shelters.” See “Before a Nuclear Blast,” subheading “To prepare for a nuclear blast, you should do the following…” located at this URL: (accessed by CONELRAD on April 27, 2010). An e-mail to FEMA on February 27, 2010 inquiring about whether a federal directive was ever issued to remove Fallout Shelter Signs from buildings was responded to the same day with the above link. A follow-up e-mail advising the sender that the link does not answer the question has not been responded to yet. If it is, this endnote will be updated. Note: As late as 1982 new Fallout Shelter Signs were still being issued to local civil defense authorities. See Gloria Hizer, “Plans Made to Handle Nuclear Crisis,” Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, IN), September 3, 1982. Marilyn Braun, who was the Greensboro, NC Emergency Management Coordinator from 1979 through 2009 told Bill Geerhart in an April 27, 2010 interview that she never saw a federal directive to remove Fallout Shelter Signs from buildings. She added that this does not mean that one was never issued.

[li] For examples of the Fallout Shelter Sign in popular culture see:

[lii] November 18, 1973 Washington Post clipping of an advertisement for The Who concert (for December 6, 1973 at the Captial Centre) using the Fallout Shelter Sign can be seen in the Capacity Fallout Shelter Sign Certification Mark file maintained by U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army.

[liii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[liv] After several communications with the Department of Defense Bill Geerhart was referred to speak with the Historian of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Dr. Alfred Goldberg. Dr. Goldberg--who has since retired--told Geerhart in September of 2003 that he knew nothing about the history of the sign. Other government and private entities contacted by CONELRAD about the Fallout Shelter Sign include: NARA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (U.S.A.C.E.), the Government Services Administration, the Department of Energy, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Historian’s Office and the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, OH. NARA and the U.S.A.C.E. provided some documentation and guidance, but otherwise, it was a long slog.

[lv] Dr. Dennis Patton, “The Evolution of the Radiation Symbol,” The Journal of Nuclear Medicine, Vol. 42, No. 6, June 2001, p. 33N.


MarkMcG said...

An interesting piece of research, and a great read - thanks!

Benjamin Otis said...

Excellent work! This is such a trove of information I could have never put together myself. You should be commended!


More Great History I Commend Your Search For Detail That All Great Historians Lust For, Without Conelrad,AND Conelrad Adjacent There Would Be Lots Of Blank Spots In Our Atomic Past,I Am Glad To Be A student Of Your Research And Knowledge.Forever Grateful-Liam Gibson

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Having grown up in Chicago in the 1960s-70s, I always saw these signs. And as you say, they blended into the background of our everyday lives. As a kid, we were dutifully drilled by the teachers to go into the halls, sit and face the walls, and cover our heads. By the time the late 70s-early 80s rolled in, we knew a public shelter was a name only thing against the current crop of nukes. Good story. Thanks for the history lesson. :-)

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I love these signs and cannot thank you enough for your tireless work in locating the people involved in the making of these historic symbols. I now proudly own a type one and two type twos, plus some decals. These signs have fascinated me from my early childhood. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping solve the mystery behind these signs! As a graphic designer myself, I would love to meet the Blair people if they ever have the time to chat, as well as the sign makers.


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