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The House in the Middle

Federal Civil Defense Administration

A frightening new danger of the atomic bomb was the massive thermal heatwave it released, which was capable of starting fires many miles away from its point of impact.  Homes, schools, factories, and other buildings located in the suburban areas far from an enemy bomb's epicenter were suddenly at risk of catching fire.  To combat this wide reaching threat, Cold War civil defense officials began an information campaign which promoted good housekeeping as the best defense against atomic fires.  A pamphlet, Firefighting for Householders, and a film of the same name, were introduced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1951 to encourage Americans to keep a tidy lawn, free from yard waste and litter, alongside an uncluttered home.  Two years later in October of 1953, the F.C.D.A. released The House in the Middle, which uses footage captured during atomic testing at the Nevada Proving Grounds to present the exact same message. 


From a desk surrounded by civil defense posters, the film's narrator begins by reminding viewers how they witnessed the tremendous destructive power of the atomic bomb during the then recent television broadcast of Operation Doorstep.  In an effort to show the danger facing homeowners, a series of tests were designed to demonstrate how easily fire would spread in the aftermath of an enemy attack.  Three fences are shown.  Two are composed of rotting and worn wood and are also surrounded by scrap paper and heaps of dry grass.  The third fence has treated wood and is free of yard waste.  Stop motion footage from re-enforced cameras captures the exact moment each fence is exposed to the bomb's tremendous heat.  The poorly maintained fences quickly ignite while the well-kept one does not.  In a second sequence, two identical homes, one cluttered and one orderly, stand side by side.  The contents of the untidy home, mostly stacks of magazines, piles of clothing, and old wooden blinds, start a smoldering fire which spreads to the structure of home and burns it to the ground.  Only single small fire breaks out in the clean home and the narrator explains it was extinguished by observers who arrive at the scene shortly after the test.


A final test sequence depicts three one-room model homes, each with a matching fence.  The house on the right is dilapidated and sits in shambles.  The house on the left is clean and sturdy, but its wooden structure is worn by the sun and is dry and cracking.  The titular house in the middle stands in sharp contrast to its neighbors, painted a vibrant white and kept in good repair.  When the test bomb detonates, the house on the right immediately ignites into a blazing inferno while the house on the left succumbs to several small fires.  The middle house, despite some scorching, remains standing.  The narrator explains this is due, in part, to the reflective nature of its freshly painted exterior.  In this small comment, the National Paint, Varnish, and Lacquer Association, a trade organization designed to promote wood finishing materials, saw a unique advertising opportunity.  Under the guise of the National Clean-Up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up Bureau, it teamed with the F.C.D.A. to fund the release of a longer, colorized version of The House in the Middle in October of 1954.  This lengthier version focuses largely on the benefits of having freshly treated wood products which may deflect the heat of an enemy bomb.  An ending scene is added which features a community cleaning drive, complete with several shots of a man painting his home.  Both the original 1953 film and its 1954 re-release would be declared obsolete by the Office of Civil Defense by 1965.  Citing advances in policy and information, the O.C.D. withdrew all government copies of the films from rental or purchase.(1)

The House in the Middle may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE. 

1. Office of Civil Defense.  Civil Defense Motion Picture Catalog.  September 1966.