Welcome to the Atomic Age

Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow ready to tour.


There’s almost a sense of irony that one native son of Independence, President Harry S. Truman, gave the order to drop the atomic bombs first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki, Japan, and another native son, Michael Scheibach, Ph.D., captures the impact the atomic bomb had on children and adolescents during the first decade after the bombings in 1945.

His considerable collection has been pared down for the Mid-America Arts Alliance/Exhibits USA’s Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow exhibit. The exhibition will travel nationally.

Scheibach says the exhibit has become relevant again in the post 9-11 world. Creative Director Leslie Przybylek says Scheibach brought in some pieces for the exhibit on the day of the National Emergency Alert System test Nov. 9. “There was again something ironic about that,” she says. “We are fortunate to have Michael as a subject specialist and guest curator.”

Scheibach says his interest in the Atomic Age began during his doctoral program in the American studies department at the University of Kansas. His research became the subject of his dissertation, which was later published as a book: Atomic Narratives and American Youth: Coming of Age with the Atom, 1945-1955 (McFarland, 2003).

“The Atomic Age is undoubtedly part of every Baby Boomer’s life to some extent — from participating in duck ’n’ cover drills in school and watching sci-fi movies at the local theater, to seeing civil defense shelter signs on public buildings and living through the Cold War, particularly during tense times such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The first wave of Baby Boomers entered grade school in the early 1950s, but most came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s,” he says.

“My fascination is also with the earlier generation — what I call the Atomic Generation: those already in elementary and high school in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This generation was born in the 1930s and early 1940s, predating the Baby Boom generation (1946-1964). They learned about the atomic bomb in school, at home, and in the community almost immediately following Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Much of his research came from high school newspapers within the Kansas City, Mo. School District.

Collecting items specifically related to the Atomic Age may seem a bit different for many collectors. “My academic interest transformed itself into a hobby — although some in my family might say ‘an obsession.’ I began collecting on eBay in the late 1990s, buying a few pieces now and then. Over time, I became truly captivated by the breadth of atomic items, many of which are in the exhibit. From government posters and brochures, to toys and games, to magazines and comics, to survival kits and radiation detectors, to educational materials and schoolbooks, the diversity of atomic-related items from this era is truly something,” he says.

The collection eventually inspired him to compile government brochures and other writings on the atomic threat into a book, which McFarland published in 2009. The title is In Case Atom Bombs Fall: An Anthology of Governmental Explanations, Instructions and Warnings from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Przybylek says that the exhibit opens with a chronological overview, then uses four themes to explore how Americans received atomic messages at home, at school, in the community, and at play. “We want to help audiences understand just how thoroughly Americans at the time were surrounded by this subject. The government believed that the more information people had, the less likely they would be to panic.”

Exhibition Designer Jeff Tackett says he talked with his parents about their personal experiences. “This resonated with them,” he says. “While so many think of the 1940s and 1950s as a sort of idyllic time, but really there was a sort of dark underbelly. There is a sense of nostalgia with lots of items that are somewhat lighthearted while others have that darkness. I asked myself if I could relate to the exhibit and the answer is yes. I thought about my parents growing up in the 1950s and that it was not all saccharine.” Przybylek says many felt the Korean War was the start of World War III. “Of course, the Cold War was heating up and the Soviet Union was a major player. It all runs together in that history depicted here.”

Everyone putting the exhibition together has favorite pieces. Initially the team thought the exhibit would be about 50 pieces. To tell a more thorough story, however, the show contains 75 pieces. For Scheibach, five pieces capture the sometimes playful and often ominous overtones:

• The Hubley Atomic Disintegrator is very cool. What kid wouldn’t want to have that indestructible toy gun to fight aliens or commies?

• The Atomic Bombing Care educational tool for parents is one of those “Are you kidding?” items. But teaching very young children about what to do if an atomic attack occurred was deemed absolutely critical during the early 1950s. This is also one of Przybylek’s favorite pieces with the educational component.
• The Ground Observer Corps poster showing a small child holding a stuffed animal with his mother’s eyes in the background looking toward the skies to keep him safe. This poster illustrates the core government message that everyone had to be alert in order to survive.

• The Kusan atomic train with an atomic reactor car, missile car, and atomic cannon is fantastic. The original train, introduced in the late 1950s, came with a mechanism that allowed you to shoot the atomic cannon as the train sped around the tracks.

• The Radar Center is another one of those hard-to-believe toys from the early 1950s. It allowed a child to track attacking enemy planes and signal an alarm, as well as send Morse code, to warn people against a surprise atomic attack.Scheibach plans to be at the first exhibit stop at Elmhurst Historical Museum in Elmhurst, Ill. “People experiencing the exhibit are going to be surprised and, I believe, a bit overwhelmed at the number and diversity of items. And the Exhibits USA staff is doing a masterful job of enhancing the items from my collection,” he says. “Personally, I think the collective impact of visual elements will make the most buzz. The posters, signage, brochures, books, comics, and photos illustrate extremely well the theme of the era and the exhibit: be alert today and you will be alive tomorrow. This is still living history for many of us.”

Przybylek says the exhibit spends around two to four months at each location. After Elmhurst, the exhibit moves to Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Penn., and then Park City Museum in Park City, Utah. The November date is currently open. Przybylek, Tackett and Scheibach are hopeful to get a local museum or organization to host the exhibit for Kansas City. The exhibit should travel through early January 2017.

Photos Courtesy of Michael Scheibach, Ph.D./M-AAA

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

Leave a Reply