Honestly, I had despaired of seeing this sort of thing ever again.

In the Fab Fifties, there was a short-lived craze of drilling kids in school to hide under their desks if the Russkies ever Dropped the Big One. Never mind the fact that the Big One could incinerate desks, schools and kids pretty much instantaneously if it was dropped in the right place.

There was also a series of public shelters, authorized in school, church and apartment house basements. H.G. Wells predicted this in the 1890s, when in his The Time Machine the basement cowerers evolved into the Morlocks, while the surface people became simple folk who were preyed on by the Morlocks. When push comes to shove, I’d rather be the preyer than the preyee.

Now, there are still dozens, if not hundreds, of small “Fallout Shelter” signs affixed to the buildings in which they were featured. Just walk through any urbanized neighborhood, and you’ll see them.

However, they had larger cousins, yellow signs saying ‘Public Shelter’ with an arrow and avery big S for Shelter. These, too, were posted with amazing frequency, and I was still seeing a few of them in the 1990s, before Forgotten New York was conceived. By the time FNY debuted, though, I thought they were gone.

I was dazedly meandering around in the snow one December afternoon when, turning  a corner at Cuthbert and Beverly Roads in Forest Hills, I recognized this one immediately, even though most of the lettering has washed out. Of course, the childhood memories kept flooding back.

Actually I had more to worry about from the nuns who were ripping up my Baseball Digests from any plans Uncle Leonid had in the 1960s.


Categorized in: One Shots Signs


  1. Danny S. says:

    I used to see these signs as a kid around 1960, along with the newer “fallout shelter” signs with the radiation symbol. I think these “Public Shelter” signs may actually date from World War II, and that they were intended for shelter against “ordinary” bombs, air raids along the lines of the London Blitz, rather than from nukes.

  2. Andy Subbiondo says:

    I seem to remember the Civilian Defense emblem appearing on some of those “Shelter” signs.

    Even at the tender age of 10 or 11 I was well aware that crouching under a desk a dozen miles east of Times Square would be futile if the Big One was dropped on New York.

  3. Sandy Saltzman says:

    I always thought that the Public Shelter signs were remnants of World War II,pointing the way to air raid shelters.

  4. Jeff B. says:

    I remember those signs – I always thought they looked older than the 1950’s. They only had the Radiation Symbol Shelter signs where I was in NJ. I never really thought about the fact I’d be toast if the big one came to Times Sq. I knew I was close to NYC, but until I just measured it on google earth, I didn’t realize how close – 12.96 miles northeast of Times Sq. School was a little further. Guess my goose would’ve been cooked. Ugh.

  5. Nirmal says:

    you can find the newer fallout shelters with the radiation sign in lots of prewar buildings, i know one in rego park – 98-11 63rd drive has them. i’m sure others do too.

  6. Bruce says:

    When I was an engineering student in college in the 1970s (I think this would have been 1970 or 1971), I took a course over winter break sponsored by the US government to learn how to inspect fallout shelters. I remember doing the “lab” portion of the training on the Manhattan College campus in the Bronx.

    There were summer openings and my peers who got the jobs made a fortune between pay and perdiem (lots of travel). Alas, I never did get one of the jobs, but somewhere I have a certificate saying that I qualified as a fallout shelter survey technician.

  7. NY2AZ says:

    Great timing, Kevin. I’m currently reading “Command And Control” by Eric Schlosser which is a history of the Cold War & evolving nuclear strategy. During the era my friends & I were never fooled by those signs; we knew that we had 20 minutes left to live in the event of a Soviet launch. The Cuban missile crisis came & went but none of us required intervention. However, back then we had confidence in our leaders, not to mention “America, America, God shed His grace on thee”. It’s very sad to have witnessed the cultural deterioration that has occurred over the last 50 years. For solace read scriptures (Book of Daniel, & The Book of Revelations).

  8. Steven Goodstein says:

    When I was in kindergarten in 1960, my public school continued to periodically perform the “duck & cover” drills. I am not exactly sure when the practice ended, but they seemed to continue with less frequency through the Cuban Missile Crisis era of the early 1960s. My apartment building in Queens had the yellow and black shelter signs posted in the basement but I never saw any actual supplies stored there for the residents if the basement had to be used for a shelter. Thankfully that never occurred!

  9. Old Skool says:

    I remember having the crap scared out of me whenever the air raid sirens were tested. Was this the real thing? And then the Cuban Missile Crisis happened three days after my tenth birthday. There is an old Chinese curse that says, may you live in interesting times. These were really interesting times.

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