Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
How the paint and varnish lobby used the Cold War to sell property upkeep.
In every town you'll find houses like this: run down, neglected, trash and litter disfigure the house and yard. An eyesore? Yes. And as you'll see, much more. A house that's neglected is a house that may be doomed in the atomic age.
That's what the narrator tells us early on in "The House In The Middle," a 1954 film sponsored by the "National Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up Bureau," in cooperation with the Federal Civil Defense Administration.
The 12-minute film, interspersed with actual bomb testing footage, makes the case that a well-kept and nicely painted home could save one's property from atomic destruction:
Focusing on three similar homes, the only difference being upkeep, each explosion test purports to prove the importance of keeping your house well-painted and clean.
As one may expect from such an absurd premise, the National Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up Bureau was actually created by the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association, an organization that had a vested interest in seeing Americans continue to build single-family homes and to paint those homes with frequency. As David Monteyne writes in his book, Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War, "clearly drawing on the sort of urban planning research that was used to justify slum clearance, the film demonstrates how, in contrast to vulnerability of neglected neighborhoods, the tidy streets, yards, and living rooms of the middle class were spaces safe from the ravages of atomic urban renewal."
In fact, the test footage was used from the FCDA's "Operation Doorstep," a Civil Defense test in which blast and thermal effects were evaluated on mannequins, cars, and wood-framed houses, a suburban-minded evaluation that only explored low-density settings, away from the center of any atomic impact. Apartment complexes and other forms of high-density housing were not tested.
Hindsight and rational thought aside, it's reasonable to think a video like this, produced in cooperation with a federal agency, could be convincing to some. In fact, America's paint lobby wasn't the only group to use atomic testing to scare people into trusting their cause. Monteyne also explains in his book that "in addition to the objective scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission and FCDA, a whole series of self-interested industry organizations sponsored aspects of the civil effects tests in Nevada."
After reminding viewers that neighborhoods around the country are organizing "Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up" events, the narrator closes by reminding us of those three houses that show the need for us to get our homes in order in time for the impending atomic attack:
The dingy house on the left. The dirty and littered house on the right. Or the clean, white house in the middle. It is your choice. The reward may be survival.