KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON: I’m sure everyone has seen this catchy slogan and many variations of it. It seems to pop up everywhere: on posters, T-shirts, mugs, phone cases, and just about anything that can be printed upon. This snappy little phrase seems to sum up that stoicism that we admire so much in the British: the ability to take whatever life throws at you, deal with it, and keep on going.
It especially calls to mind the British resolve during the continuous bombings of World War II when this poster was designed. Even though it was intended to encourage calmness during the darkest days of war, it actually wasn’t seen by the general public until the 21st century…
Designed as War Propaganda
During the First World War, Britain, and especially London, experienced the first sustained bombing campaign in history. It changed the whole idea of war. No longer were there soldiers fighting at the front lines to protect their families who were safe at home, tucked out of harm’s way. In this new type of war, ordinary citizens were targeted in their own homes.
As the Second World War approached, the British government knew that its citizens would once again be under attack. They wanted to find a way to encourage and reassure them; to keep up morale when things got tough.
The Ministry of Information decided that posters were the way to go. They were printed on an eye-catching red background with a message in bright, white capital letters, and each poster had the crown at the top (a symbol of the state). With this straightforward design, the messages would be easily recognizable and the text could be changed as needed.
The committee settled on three such posters and started production in 1939 just before the declaration of war. They were:
- “FREEDOM IS IN PERIL DEFEND IT WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT”
- “YOUR COURAGE, YOUR CHEERFULNESS, YOUR RESOLUTION WILL BRING US VICTORY”
- “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON”
The plan was to display these posters at extremely difficult moments when morale might be low, such as after a major crisis or, worst case, after a Nazi invasion.
First Two Posters Flop
In September 1939 war was declared and the government had every reason to expect heavy bombing to begin within hours. They rushed to plaster the country with the first two posters: “Freedom is in Peril” and “Your Courage.” The third poster (Keep Calm and Carry On) was saved for an even worse event.
To everyone’s surprise (and relief) the expected bombings didn’t start immediately. And for the first year or so, it was relatively quiet on the home front. The civilian population didn’t seem to be in imminent danger or distress, but the first two posters were already up. The bright red and white signs were almost shouting at them to keep up their morale.
The people, who saw themselves as already being courageous, cheerful and resolute, viewed them as patronizing. With the crown at the top, they felt talked down to by an upper class who didn’t know them or understand their mood. In addition, the message was too vague. What exactly were they supposed to do? Was there really nothing more to do than to be cheerful?
Seeing the public reaction to their first well-intentioned signs, the Ministry of Information changed their poster tactics. They began using images and giving advice about specific actions to take, such as: grow you own food, mend instead of spend, don’t waste food, etc.
Lost and Found
So the third (and arguably the best) poster, “Keep Calm and Carry On” never saw the light of day. It stayed stored away until 1940, when most of them were pulped as part of the Paper Salvage Campaign. However, a few of them escaped the shredder and sixty years later, in 2000, a copy showed up in a bookstore called Barter Books in northeast England. The shop owners, Stuart and Mary Manley, had bought a box of books at auction, and in the bottom was a “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster.
They thought it was eye-catching and charming, so they framed it and hung it in their shop. Customers began to comment on it and ask where they could get one. The Manleys saw an opportunity and contacted the Ministry of Defense to see if the poster was under copyright. It wasn’t, so the they started printing and selling copies. Soon others snapped up the snappy slogan and began printing their own posters.
Keep Calm and…
Then some clever person noticed that this simple saying was very versatile and people began to make their own parody versions. Today you can find adaptations of this slogan printed on just about anything.
You can keep calm and:
Drink beer, eat cupcakes, swim on, rock on, travel on, drink tea, love life, go shopping, curry on, play golf, eat chocolate…
In addition, this malleable motto can be used in the negative:
I can’t keep calm:
I’m Irish, I’m the bride, I’m an artist, the internet is down, I’m a drama queen, I’m studying history…
The bright red and white sign that admonishes us to keep calm (all the while shouting at us with its capital letters) was spurned during the war years, but has been adopted and adapted in the 21st century.
Perhaps its popularity is down to its simplicity and versatility. Or it could be that its quiet resolve is fitting for our stressful, modern lives. It’s a good reminder of how to react in the face of terrorism and the many pressures of daily life. My favorite is definitely “Keep Calm and Eat Chocolate.”
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Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England