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The House in the Middle

Federal Civil Defense Administration
National Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up Bureau

Cold War civil defense provided unique advertising opportunities for corporations and industry organizations which could link their products to survival in the wake of an enemy atomic attack.  Though usually presented in the form of a "public service", communications dealers, concrete manufacturers, and even the makers of microfilm created thinly veiled commercials by attaching their message to the threat of nationwide emergency.  This tactic was well established when the National Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up Bureau teamed with the Federal Civil Defense Administration to sponsor The House in the Middle.  As a branch of the National Paint, Varnish, and Lacquer Association, the Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up Bureau was interested in promoting paint and other wood finishing materials.(1)  It was a fortunate event then, when special cameras at the Nevada Test Site revealed that lumber without an exterior varnish would burst into flames much quicker than treated wood if subjected to an atomic blast.  This captured footage was edited into a six minute film and released by the F.C.D.A. under the title The House in the Middle in October of 1953.(2)  It stressed that good housekeeping and clean yards were the best deterrents to fires ignited by an atomic bomb.  One year later, this longer, sponsored version, focusing on properly painted homes, was released.
The House in the Middle unfolds as a series of small experiments conducted during a nuclear blast, each designed to prove that unkempt properties are not only an eyesore, but also a fire hazard which will quickly ignite when subjected to an atomic heat wave.  Opening to a series of aerial shots, a civil defense official speaks of the familiar beauty found in every American town.  Scenic suburbs are undercut by a common enemy, however, "dead grass, old leaves, and discarded newspapers".  The film cuts to the Nevada Proving Grounds where a series of fences have been set up in varying stages of decay.  While a few of the fences are brightly painted and well kept, others stand dilapidated and rotting, surrounded by litter. Just before the fireball hits, the narrator observes "trash, litter, and dead grass are perfect kindling for the unprotected and unpainted wood of the fence itself!" Predictably, following the detonation, nothing remains of the unpainted fences but charred skeletal frames.  The second test ups the ante by focusing on two homes, each coated with fresh white paint, though the interior of one is clean while the other is cluttered and messy.  When the same fireball erupts, the narrator is quick to point out the exterior surfaces did not catch fire, though the heat creates a swift inferno inside the cluttered home.  "The lack of fire-safe housekeeping has doomed this house to destruction!"
A third and final sequence taken from the nuclear tests provides the title for the film.  Three single room shacks stand linear on the proving ground flats.  The house on the left is clear of debris, but has been poorly maintained, composed of rotting wood, dry and weathered in the sun.  The house on the right is not only structurally neglected, but is surrounded by yard waste and a large trash pile.  In a gruesome twist, a baby carriage draped in flowing quilts sits on the front porch, complete with a mannequin doll staring away from the camera.  The house in the middle stands in contrast to its neighbors, painted a vibrant white, tidy inside and out.  When the bomb detonates, the left and right houses burn to the ground, baby carriage and all, leaving only smoldering ashes.  Though battered by the shock wave,  the house in the middle stands relatively intact.  Returning to the narrator's office, he asks "the dingy house on the right, the dirty and littered house on the left, or the clean white house in the middle? It is your choice!"  As a parting suggestion, the film encourages communities to hold clean-up drives, recruiting youth to properly dispose of stray trash and litter accumulating in vacant lots and alleyways.  Like many civil defense productions from the early 1950's, The House in the Middle fails to address the threat of fallout radiation.  Because of this omission, both versions of the film were declared obsolete by 1965 when the Office of Civil Defense made promotion of the National Fallout Shelter System its priority.  In spite of this designation, the film's legacy would survive.  In 2001, it was placed on the National Film Registry allowing the Library of Congress to ensure its preservation.(4)

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

1. American Coatings Association.  Celebrating 125 Years: 1887-2012.  2012.
Federal Civil Defense Administration.  1957 Annual Statistical Report. United States Government Printing Office, 1957. 124
3. Office of Civil Defense.  Civil Defense Motion Picture Catalog.  United States Government Printing Office, 1966.  31.
4. D'Ooge, Craig.  Librarian of Congress Names 25 More Films to National Film Registry.  Library of Congress.  Dec. 18, 2001.