Cold War Portsmouth

The Cold War was a 45-year standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies. In the years following WWII, the US and the USSR began building and testing atomic weapons and the threat of nuclear annihilation was never far from anyone’s mind. Thus began a nuclear stalemate that would last until the 1990s.

Arguably, it was the 1950s that experienced the strongest impact of the standoff. America had just survived WWII and now had to watch an arms race escalate on their tv sets. Bomb shelters were built and school children practiced attack drills. Films turned atomically mutated creatures into horrifying monsters while the public vilified Hollywood actors accused of being communists. And the space race began. It was in 1957 that Sputnik was launched by the Russians and the US followed suit one year later with Explorer I and President Eisenhower signing a public order that created NASA.

The major events that were happening on the global stage catalyzed change in Portsmouth. The 1950s were a time of rapid growth as the Seacoast Region was transformed by military expansion.

Pease Air Force Base was built to house bomber jets capable of delivering nuclear bombs to the Soviet Union, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard transitioned to the production of nuclear-powered, fully submersible submarines. Between 1950 and 1960, Portsmouth’s population increased by about 8,600 people to reach 26,900, which was larger than the current population of around 22,000. This era saw the birth of the “Baby Boomers” when World War II veterans had growing families. Transportation, mobility, and popular culture were transformed, and the vintage style now known as “Mid-century Modern” was new. Housing developments of colonial capes and ranch houses were built at the outer edges of the city. Highways bypassed the downtown to move an increasing number of automobiles on the roads. Businesses flourished and began to move out of town as well.

This collection serves as historical documentation of Portsmouth's economic, social, and cultural life during the Cold War period. Historical photos and citizens' recollections were used to capture a snapshot of what life was like in Portsmouth during the Cold War - from where people lived, shopped, and ate to urban renewal and other social and cultural aspects of daily life.

The items in this collection were created by Preservation Company (Kensington, NH) in collaboration with the City of Portsmouth's Community Development Department and the NH Division of Historic Resources as part of an agreement when the federal Paul A. Doble Army Reserve Center was transferred to the City for its adaptation and reuse as the new Senior Activity Center. This historic and photo documentation mitigation effort was funded with Portsmouth Community Development Block Grant Funds.

On May 18th, Portsmouth Public Library hosted a program in conjunction with Portsmouth's Community Development. The program included a screening of the Cold War video included in this collection, along with recollections shared by former and current Portsmouth citizens about life during the 1950s. You can view the recording of this program on the library's YouTube channel.
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