Pre-war Britain, a nation in the shadow of conflict with people expecting the worst, bracing themselves for whatever fate and Mr. Hitler had in store for them. What would the future hold? What would war mean to every man, woman, and child in the land? There was only one thing for it in these troubled times – Keep Calm and Carry On.
Today those five words ring out from posters, mug, key rings, and any number of other products; the words themselves seem to call out from a world of rationing, doodlebugs, and the home guard. “Keep Calm And Carry On.” We see it everywhere and it’s easy to imagine a wartime Britain where this iconic phrase was firmly displayed on every street corner. After all, the government, specifically the Ministry of Information, printed over 2.5 million of them. In truth though not a single citizen ever saw the slogan, let alone gained any strength or encouragement from it.
“Keep Calm And Carry On” was the third poster in a series of three. The first being “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might” with 400,000 printed and the second “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” with a print run of 800,000. The idea behind the posters was to maintain morale during the first few weeks of the war. The Ministry of Information started planning the posters in the April of 1939; designs were prepared in June, and by August they were at the printers ready for an army of bill posters to spring into action and have them stuck to every available surface within 24 hours of war being declared.
The posters were designed by the Ministry of Information and the slogans created by civil servants. Just who exactly was responsible for “Keep Calm” has been lost but “Your Courage”(the most famous during the war) was created by Waterfield, a career civil servant as “a rallying war-cry that will bring out the best in every one of us and put us in an offensive mood at once”. The posters were spare in design terms, intended as clear messages without pictures – a simple specially designed typeface, clear white lettering on a red background, and an icon of King George VI’s crown at the top to give a sense of it being a message directly from the His Majesty.
By the outbreak of war the first two posters were everywhere – posted on public transport, in shop windows, upon notice boards and hoardings, whilst ‘Keep Calm’ languished in a ministry warehouse waiting on the invasion of Britain by Germany. The years passed, stack upon stack of posters gathering dust waiting for an invasion that never came. Finally, when the war ended in 1945, they were reduced to pulp and destroyed.
And there the story might have ended and the poster forgotten forever, but 55 years later in 2000 a bookseller, Stuart Manley, from Alnwick in Northumberland came across a copy of the poster in a box of second-hand books he had bought at auction. Stuart’s wife Mary was so taken with the poster that she put it up by the till. Soon customers were asking to buy copies and, as Crown Copyright expires on government works after 50 years, the Manley’s began selling reproductions. Sales remained modest at Barter Books until 2005, when it was featured as a Christmas gift idea in a national newspaper supplement.
“All hell broke loose,” says Mr Manley. “Our website broke down under the strain, the phone never stopped ringing and virtually every member of staff had to be diverted into packing posters.”
A long overdue icon had been born. Today Barter Books, a charmingly restored former railway station, receives an average of 1,000 orders a month from all around the world.
Original copies of the poster were few and far between, there were a small number of copies held in the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum in London and one other in private hands, but then in an episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow a further 15 were discovered. They’d been given to Moragh Turnbull, from Cupar, Fife, by her father William, who had served as a member of the Royal Observer Corps. They were valued at £1,000 each.
Today the original message is everywhere; inspiring ranges of clothing, mugs, doormats, baby clothes, even a book of motivational quotations. Parodies are common – “Keep Calm And Drink Tea/Beer/Champagne”, “Keep Calm And Play Golf”, “Keep Calm And Go Shopping” – the slogan seems to be infinitely variable. And of course there are less reassuring copies: “Now Panic and Freak Out” is also available.
Just why the slogan is so popular is a mystery. It’s almost zen-like simplicity could have something to do with it, as could the very British stiff upper lip sentiment it expresses. Maybe, in a modern world that some see as uncertain as 1939 where anxieties focus on redundancy and recession rather than bombs and the Blitz, the message remains relevant due to the good advice it offers. It sells well in doctors’ surgeries, hospitals, schools and government departments, seeming to strike a chord anywhere that works at a hectic pace. It’s a simple message speaking directly to peoples’ personal neuroses. It’s not ideological, it’s not urging people to fight for freedom like many propaganda posters do – it’s about tea, and routine, and continuing to do what you always do. In short… it’s comforting.