While thinking about the “Keep Calm And Carry On” phenomenon, I was certain I knew the history of the phrase as part of a poster campaign in England during World War II. As I read more, the true story emerged. It’s even more interesting than I initially supposed.
Posters In World War II. My assumption was that the poster was part of the domestic propaganda campaign created by the British government during WWII. Classic examples include the anti-gossip “Careless Talk Costs Lives” and “Keep Mum, She’s Not So Dumb” series, the “Dig For Victory” campaign, urging people to grow food in the face of severe rationing, and the many posters encouraging women to join the armed forces or take on jobs formerly held by men. I thought that “Keep Calm And Carry On” probably appeared all over the country during the worst of the Blitz, when Britain was under devastating attack from the Luftwaffe and the threat of invasion was a constant fear. Turns out that’s not the case.
Origins. In the summer of 1939, when war seemed inevitable, the British Ministry of Information created three posters intended to boost morale when the worst of war came to Britain. The other two posters were released in September, after the war broke out, but “Keep Calm” was held back for use following the most devastating air raids, or in the event of invasion. The air attacks came, but the poster was never distributed. (A very few were displayed, but there was no authorized release.) In 1940 the stock of approximately 2.5 million posters (printed in 11 different sizes) was pulped as part of the war effort to recycle as much material as possible.
An Icon Is Born. Fast forward to 2000. Mary and Stuart Manley, the owners of Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland were sorting through a box of books they’d bought at auction when they found the poster. They liked it, framed it and hung it up by the till (cash register). Customers admired it and the Manleys started printing copies for sale. They offered it as part of their holiday catalogue, and the rush of orders completely overwhelmed their computer system. The background story gradually emerged, and a few more originals have surfaced over the years, including a set of 15 that appeared on Antiques Roadshow in 2012.
Copyright Wars. I suppose the story wouldn’t be complete without a few legal battles. An enterprising entrepreneur seized on the growing interest in all things “Keep Calm” and applied to register the saying in the European Union (EU), UK, US, and Canada. There was an outcry against trademarking something in the public domain, but he was apparently successful in the EU. Judging by the proliferation of merchandise, he doesn’t have the slogan trademarked everywhere.
Variations On A Theme. It was inevitable that there would be parodies, imitations, and variations. Keep Calm And Do The Dishes. Now Panic And Freak Out. Calm You Shall Keep And Carry On You Must. Keep Calm And Fake A British Accent. Keep Calm And Drink Wine. Keep Calm And Call Mom. Keep Calm And Rock On. If you have an idea you’d like to put on a mug, pillow, t-shirt etc., you can go to this store and make your own slogan.
I like the original best. It’s a message that stands in stark contrast to our always-connected, 24/7 news cycle, vituperative social media world. I’m not nostalgic for a time of nightly air raids, but I think I’ll turn off my phone, make a cup of tea, and read a book. On my iPad, of course.