Back in the year 2000, one of the owners of Barter Books, Stuart Manley, was going rifling through a box of books he had just bought at auction. Stuart recalled how “There were about 30 books in the first box I opened – most were pretty poor and ended up in the recycling. But as I got towards the bottom of the box, I noticed a big folded piece of paper. I pulled it out and found a lovely red poster, reading “Keep Calm and Carry On”. It had a really nice feeling about it. That evening, I took it home to Mary; she loved it too and thought we should have it framed and hung on the wall of our bookshop.”
Staurt knew it was an old wartime poster but didn’t realise then that he had just unfold a national icon. They hung the simple red poster next to the til, soon customers were asking if it was for sale. Stuart politely decline to part with poster, even when one customer offered him £1000. But the growing interest by customers gave Stuart a business idea. He decided to get copies of the poster printed and started selling them in the bookshop.
Within a year Stuart had sold 500 copies of the poster. In 2005 a copy of the poster was featured in a national newspaper, suddenly sales went from 500 a year to 3,000 a week, the bookshops website crashed when too many visitors logged in to view the poster. Ironically the bookshop turned into a miliary operation just to service the demand from new customers.
The original war time print run for the poster was over 1 million units. So far only three of these originals have been discovered. The first two designs in the series which included the Keep Calm poster are “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom is in Peril” these designed were used in 1939 and appeared in shop windows, government buildings and railway stations. However, the rarity of the ‘Keep Calm’ poster was due to the fact that it was held back from general release and intended for use only in times of crisis or invasion. At the end of the war, the posters were collected up and pulped.
In 2010 two more originals turned up. One was part of a batch sent to Princes Risborough police station, Bucks, in 1939 and a third in private hands turned up a year ago at Wallis & Wallis auctioneers in Lewes, East Sussex.
Since Stuarts find in 2000, the rediscovered ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’ poster has been copied and recopied (as well as parodied!) by many others, has sold in the millions and been applied to everything from mugs to mobile phones, making this 1939 design the first truly iconic image of the twenty-first century.