Atomic Ephemera

The blog Paleofuture has a wonderful selection of ephemera from the United States’ nuclear age. They’ve picked out an interesting selection of certificates of participation in nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site and elsewhere (though one or two didn’t involve nuclear explosions) from a Flickr album created by Kelly Michals (whose Flickr page includes a lot of other atomic ephemera and nuclear technology). There’s quite a lot of variation in the style, though a large number of the Nevada ceriticates share a common layout and illustration style (two-color unitl 1968, and four-color thereafter). It’s no surprise that slightly kitchy ephemera exists from the early years of nuclear testing. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when detonations at the Nevada Test Site were a tourist attraction for Las Vegas and postcards featuring atomic explosions and the infrastructure of nuclear war were dime a dozen.

The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty ended to above-ground tests, putting an end to Vegas mushroom cloud-watching, while an increasing understanding of the scope of the nuclear threat put an end to a lot of the tourist postcards, but the certificates clearly kept coming. They feature illustrations which allude to the mostly nonsense code-names of the tests, as well as what I can only assume are in-jokes about the research involved or the events of the test. The certificate for HYBLA FAIR features a surveyor saying “Align it again Sam!,” HUSKY PUP a ranger’s hat labelled “Careless Pushing / Speeding / Unauthorized Parking,” and HYBLA GOLD has an outhouse with “The King Is In” carved on the door and a word bubble saying “Your Secret Is Safe With Us.”

The combination is reminiscent of the jokey unit and mission patches associated with classified operations, which artist Trevor Paglen has collected in his book I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me – Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World. Like those patches, which assiduous secret-seekers can parse for at information about the projects behind them (as in these two articles by Roger Guiillemette and Dwayne A. Day over at The Space Review), I’m sure the certificates reveal more to the experienced eye.

For the rest of us, what you get is doubly black humor, the laughs of those involved in the deadly serious work of nuclear deterrence peeking out from beneath the the curtain of secrecy to joke about the presumably absurd conditions on which that deterrence was built. Which, now that I think about it, may make the certificates triply black humor.

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