On 6 and 9 August 1945, the United States detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The aerial bombings together killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians. These events remain the only use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict.
Everything Atomic Goes Viral
Within a year, the public’s fascination with the atom snowballs, ‘everything atomic goes viral’, and the Atomic Age dominates the American popular culture.
Some of the first companies to take advantage of the ‘atomic fad’ are associated with the fashion and beauty industries.
Beauty and ‘the atomic’ were a public relations dream, launching their partnership on July 5, 1946. This is the day that French designer Louis Reard unveiled a daring two-piece swimsuit at the Piscine Molitor, a popular swimming pool in Paris. The new fashion, dubbed a “bikini,” was so shocking that the Vatican formally decreed the design sinful. Reard couldn’t have been happier. In fact, he hoped that the design would cause the same kind of mushroom-cloud impact as US atomic testing on Bikini Atoll earlier in the week.
Regarding ‘atomic beauty’, Lucy Jane Santos remarks on Twitter:
One of the first beauty companies off the mark was Monterey who marketed a lipstick shade called ‘Atomic Red.’ Tasteless enough (and still a common shade name today) but their tag line “Flame swept, devastating new liptone” takes some beating IMO considering this is 1946.
If you’d like to read more intriguing tidbits, checkout the Santos twitter feed here.
By 1948, the Jergens Company had created an atomic bomb perfume with a potent earthy scent.
The bottles are now collectibles on Etsy but, if you really want, you can buy a never used bottle for only $249 here. According to the product description:
This listing is for an unboxed 1/4 oz. Jergens Atom Bomb figural bottle from 1948. This bottle is in absolutely incredible condition. I have never seen another one in such perfect condition and is a must for a perfume collector. Most of the ones that you see are actually empty or have just a tiny bit left in them or their labels are worn or completely gone (it appears they came with both paper and foil labels). Even the bottle in the National Nuclear Museum has just a tiny bit of perfume left in it and is in very rough condition.
Atom Bomb was patented by the Jergens Company in 1948 and plays on the term “bombshell”, which was used to refer to a particularly attractive woman. Atom Bomb perfume, in its rocket-shaped bottle, was a novelty item as well as a cosmetic one. I could find newspaper ads for the fragrance until October of 1955 and it sold for 25 cents.
Once one was ‘all dolled up’, it would be normal to want do something special. An Atomic Cocktail might be the first step. You can find a recipe here.
Then, tune in to the Atomic Cocktail song if you really want to get in the spirit.
Clearly, popular culture had entered The Atomic Age.
The Rush for Uranium
As excitement about the new technology spread, there was a new ‘gold rush’ for uranium. Like the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s, many wanted to ‘get rich quick’. The term uraniumaire entered the vocabulary and even found a place in the Merrium -Webster Dictionary. Here’s the definition:
a person making a fortune from uranium and especially from the discovery of new deposits
In 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) started selling a guide. For just 30 cents, you could buy “How to be a Uranium Prospector.” If you’d like lots of details and a photograph click here.
Uranium Hunting was so popular that Lucy and Ricky of I Love Lucy fame even took up the hunt. In Season 1, Episode 3, Lucy goes to the Mojave Desert hoping to ‘get rich quick.’ You can get a taste of the episode in the clip below.
Kids Catch Atomic Fever
Atomic Fever didn’t just affect adults. Kids caught it too.
Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring
In 1947, General Mills’ KiX cereal brand offered the Atomic “Bomb” Ring – also known as the Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring – as a premium in exchange for 15 cents plus a cereal box top. You can learn all about the ring here.
And for those of you tempted to buy, the ring is available from several vendors on ebay. There’s a photo from one below. (Just a photo, not a recommendation.)
Atomic Energy Boy Scout Badge
There was even an Atomic Energy Boy Scout badge. For in-depth information on the badge click here.
In 2005, the Boy Scouts of America revised the badge, renaming it Nuclear Science. Now, more than 5,000 boys earn this award every year. The new badge contains activities that are directly related to what nuclear scientists do everyday.
Atomic toys were also popular gifts. To find out more about them, check out the Cold War Studies post title Toys for the Atomic Age. Just click here.
And we don’t want to leave out comic characters. You can learn more about them in the “Toys” post too.
Dagwood Splits the Atom” was an educational “freebee” produced in 1949 by King Features Syndicate. Dagwood, with help from his wife Blondie, Mandrake the Magician, and Popeye explains atomic structure and how to create a chain reaction.
General Leslie Groves, who headed up the Manhattan Project, provides the introduction, and at the end there is a multiple choice quiz, e.g., “What is changing into helium and producing atomic energy in the sun? Protons, neutrons, hydrogen, infra-red light.” Dagwood Splits the Atom was also included in Gilbert’s famous U-238 Atomic Energy Lab set.
Atomic Era Anxiety
By the early 1950s, anxious Americans were consumed by the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Red Scare.
The Soviets had successfully tested their first nuclear device on August 29, 1949.
Just a bit later, in February 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a little-known junior senator from Wisconsin, claimed to possess a list of 205 card-carrying Communists employed in the US Department of State.
The film Duck and Cover was first screened on January 7, 1952, as part of the Alert America civil defense exhibit convoy in Washington DC. It taught children to hide under a desk or against a wall and cover their neck and face for safety during a nuclear attack. Take a look at the clip below.
Finally, in June 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage under the US Espionage Act of 1917. Members of the communist party, the Rosenbergs were convicted of passing secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union in 1945.
Despite all these happenings, the obsession with everything atomic persisted, maybe even increased.
Disney even got into the mix. “Our Friend the Atom” is a 1957 episode of the television series Disneyland describing the benefits of nuclear power and hosted by Heinz Haber. You can watch it here.
The Atomic Virus Fizzles Out?
Some say the US public became much more blase about the atomic bomb after 1960. After all, it wasn’t too much later (September 12, 1962) when a recently inaugurated President John F. Kennedy addressed an audience at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort. “We choose to go to the Moon,” he said, in an effort to bolster public support for his proposal to land a man on the Moon before 1970.
The end of the “atomic age?”
But even so, as late as August, 1982, the US Postal Service was revealing its plans to assure mail delivery in the event of nuclear war.
Emergency change of address forms and safety notification cards will be available at all post offices, they announced. They continued:
While there may not be many people left after such a disaster, the remaining few will get their mail, according to the Postal Service’s Civil Defense Coordinator. Should Washington DC be destroyed, the national postal service will be run from Memphis, Tenn. If Memphis is also devastated, San Bruno, CA will take over.
I hope we never have to count on that.
Featured image by Kelly Michals (Flickr): The Atom Bomb and Popular Culture