Where Did the Keep Calm and Carry On Thing Come From?

You can find it almost everywhere: in every gift shop, on every online merchandise store, on every souvenir stand – and on every object imaginable, from posters and postcards to coffee mugs, water bottles, t-shirts, and phone cases: the brick-red background, the stylized white crown, and in big, bold letters, those five iconic words: Keep Calm and Carry On.

or, just as likely, you will encounter one the slogan’s endless, obnoxious parodies and remixes, from Keep Calm and Party On to Panic and Freak Out to the Yoda-speak favourite Calm You Must Keep and Carry on You Must. Whatever form it takes, this poster has become an icon of the Second World War, as emblematic of wartime British “stiff-upper-lip” stoicism as the equally iconic “Rosie the Riveter” poster is of American resolve and industriousness. Yet despite its ubiquity, just like its American cousin, the Keep Calm and Carry on Poster was actually rarely if ever seen by the wartime public, and remained virtually unknown until very recently. So how, then, did this simple but powerful piece of typography go from obscure wartime propaganda to global cultural icon? Well, let’s find out, shall we?

In the late 1930s, as war clouds gathered over Europe, the British government faced the terrifying prospect of German bombs raining down on civilian centres. During the Great War, London and other cities had been bombed by German Zeppelins and Gotha bombers, but these attacks had caused relatively little damage. However, the huge advancements in aviation technology in the intervening twenty years promised death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Eager to avoid mass panic and social collapse, in 1937 the British Ministry of Information began work on various ‘Home Publicity’ campaigns to steel the British people against the coming onslaught.

At first, the Ministry believed that such campaigns would only be required once the bombings had already begun, and thus devoted most of its efforts to censorship and the official news broadcasts. However, in March of 1939, the Royal Institute of International Affairs produced a secret report on propaganda policy in foreign countries, which revealed that for a propaganda message to be truly effective, it had to be drilled into the public’s minds well ahead of the outbreak of hostilities, thereby helping to control and contain the initial reaction. And so, on April 6, the Ministry of Information began working in earnest on its preemptive “reassurance campaign.”

A prototype of sorts for the now-iconic Keep Calm and Carry On Poster had already appeared during the 1938 Munich Crisis, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German dictator Adolf Hitler negotiated Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region. With war seemingly just around the corner, posters printed in newspapers urged citizens to Keep Calm and Dig – in this case, referring to air-raid dugouts and slit trenches. However, the Ministry’s new campaign was to be carried out on an altogether larger scale, with millions of posters plastered over train stations, bus stops, bulletin boards, and other public spaces all over the British Isles. The men tasked with creating this campaign were an ad-hoc committee of civil servants and volunteer academics, publicists, publishers, and artists, who met over lunch on a weekly basis. These included A.P. Waterfield, head of planning for the Ministry of Information; William Surrey Dane, the managing director of Odhams press; Gervais Huxley, the former head of publicity for the Empire Marketing Board; advertising agent W.G.V. Vaughan; John Hilton, Professor of Industrial Relations at Cambridge University; William Codling, controller of His Majesty’s Stationery Office; Member of Parliament Harold Nicholson; and graphic artist Ernest Wallcousins. The committee decided that the campaign posters should stand out against regular commercial advertisements and be clearly identifiable as part of a single, coherent campaign. They also agreed that the posters should reassure the public of ultimate victory and emphasize that every defensive precaution was being taken and that the whole country was united and committed to the war effort.

Exactly how the posters were supposed to convey these sentiments, however, was a different matter, and many different concepts were put forward. One early proposal featured a medieval English bowman and a modern British citizen side-by-side, drawing on the romantic image of the nation’s military past. The committee soon decided, however, that such artwork was too complex, and that the posters should feature only motivational slogans printed in bright colours and bold, straightforward fonts. The first such designs took the form of personal messages from King George VI to his subjects, to be printed as letters and mailed out to British citizens. In keeping with the emphasis on graphic simplicity, instead of a portrait of the king, the message was headed by the stylized image of a crown. But this concept was also eventually abandoned, as the committee feared that it would draw too much attention to the social gulf between the aristocracy and ordinary people. Instead, it was decided that the slogans should, as A.P. Waterfield put it:

“…be a rallying war-cry that will bring out the best in every one of us and put us in an offensive mood at once.”

To this end, excerpts of speeches by Prime Minister Winston Churchill were also briefly considered, but these, too, were ultimately deemed too elitist. Indeed, so adamant was the desire to democratize the slogans that the seemingly innocuous “England is Prepared” was rejected in favour of the more populist “We’re going to see it through.”

By July 6, 1939, twenty slogans had been submitted to the committee, which, over the course of four additional meetings, were whittled down to a short list of five. On August 4, these were presented to Home Secretary Samuel Hoare, who selected the three finalists. These were: Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution; Will Bring Us Victory; Freedom is in Peril;Defend it With All Your Might printed in white on green; and, finally, Keep Calm and Carry On. These slogans were printed in bold letters on a red or blue background with a stylized crown borrowed from the earlier “Message from the King” concept. The H.M. Stationery Office was placed in charge of printing while advertising agency S.H. Benson Ltd. was hired to handle distribution. The total cost of the campaign was estimated at £112,000 – more than £8.6 million in today’s money.

Yet many still had doubts about the campaign, including Waterfield himself, who deemed the slogans “too commonplace to be inspiring,” and feared that:

“…the population might well resent having this poster crammed down their throats at every turn…it may even annoy people that we should seem to doubt the steadiness of their nerves.”

In the end, world events forced the committee’s hand. On August 23, Hitler signed the Molotov-Rippentrop non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, making war all but inevitable and spurring the Ministry of Information to rush the posters to print. By the time Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 4 million posters were produced – 12% Freedom is in Peril, 23% Your Courage, and 65% Keep Calm and Carry On. The posters were produced in 11 different sizes, from 15×10 inches to 10×20 foot billboards, with Freedom is in Peril and Your Courage being distributed first and Keep Calm and Carry On held in reserve.

Unfortunately, the public’s reaction to the posters was not at all what the committee had expected. For one thing, the British Government had assumed that German air raids would commence shortly after the declaration of war. In reality, however, the 8 months between the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 and their invasion of France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940 saw almost no activity on the Western Front – a period which came to be known as the “Phoney War.” Thus, with the public mood marked by boredom rather than terror, the posters’ reassuring message fell upon deaf ears. As Brigadier V.M.C. Napier complained to the Times:

Is it wise, to say the least, to placard the countryside with posters calling on the courage and resolution of the individual when no appreciable demands have yet been made on these qualities?”

Public surveys conducted by Mass Observation, the UK Government’s social research group, also revealed that many people were annoyed by the sheer volume of posters covering every available surface. Worse still, despite their populist intentions, the Ministry of Information committee had severely misjudged the public’s mood and the implications of the chosen slogans. Your Courage was particularly despised, as its exhortation that “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” seemed to imply that the common people would suffer for the benefit of the upper classes. The slogan was also judged to be too wordy and confusing to be truly effective, with one journalist from the Daily Mail reporting that while he passed the poster six times every day, he was unable to precisely remember the entire slogan. Indeed, the campaign was widely disparaged in the press, with the Daily Express dismissing the effort as so much government “waste and paste.”

As a result, the existing stocks of Keep Calm and Carry On remained in reserve, with funds instead diverted into printing 750,000 additional copies of Your Courage and Freedom is in Peril. These stocks were retained until April 1940 when, due to a severe paper shortage, nearly every single copy was pulped. Aside from a handful of examples displayed in shops and pubs, the poster was almost never seen by the wartime British public.

And so the poster fell into obscurity, only to suddenly resurface six decades later. In the year 2000, Stuart Manley, owner of Barter Books Ltd. in Alnwick [“Ann-ick”], Northumberland, was sorting through a box of second-hand books purchased at auction when he uncovered a surviving copy of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. As Manley explained in a later interview:

I didn’t know anything about it but I showed it to my wife. We both liked it so we decided to frame it and put it in the shop. Lots of people saw it and wanted to buy it. We refused all offers but eventually we decided we should get copies made for sale.”

This proved surprisingly difficult, as the lettering did not conform to any existing typeface, having likely been hand-drawn by artist Ernest Wallcousins. The finalized reproductions sold modestly until 2005, when Susie Steiner, a journalist from The Guardian, featured the poster on a list of Christmas gift suggestions. Suddenly, said Manley:

All hell broke loose…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.”

The store soon diversified into selling fridge magnets, coffee mugs, cufflinks, and other merchandise bearing the slogan, and now receives more than 1,000 orders every month from around the world. However, as the Manleys did not copyright their reproductions, it wasn’t long before others started jumping on the bandwagon. In August 2011, former British TV producer and entrepreneur Mark Coop incorporated the company Keep Calm and Carry on Ltd. and registered the slogan as a community trademark in the European Union. Coop then issued take-down notices to all other companies selling merchandise featuring the slogan.

Unsurprisingly, this move did not sit well with smaller vendors like the Manleys, who accused Coop of trying to monopolize a piece of history. They subsequently filed an application with the British trademarking service Trade Mark Direct to have the registration cancelled, arguing that the words were too widely used for any one person to own the exclusive rights. Unfortunately, the application was rejected, and the slogan remains protected in all 27 EU countries.

Soon after, Coop appeared on the BBC to respond to the backlash, stating:

I have to protect my own interests…had I not built this up, they probably would never have even heard of it, you know, they would never have even have seen it, so I think they’re jumping on the back of essentially what I came up with…The trouble and everything it’s caused has not been worth it. I didn’t expect that people would react in such a venomous, vicious way.”

Yet despite his rather dubious claim of having single-handedly created the Keep Calm and Carry On phenomenon, Coop has refused to take legal action against the Manleys and Barter Books, explaining that:

“I wouldn’t dream of stopping them from selling copies of the poster that they found. If it wasn’t them who found it and brought it to life, nobody would be aware of the poster.”

But regardless of who is responsible, the brand has become ubiquitous, with Amazon.com listing nearly 100,000 products featuring the Keep Calm and Carry On slogan or variations thereof. For the Manleys, this explosion in popularity elicits mixed feelings, with Mary Manley lamenting:

I didn’t want it trivialised; but of course now it’s been trivialised beyond belief.”

But there is no denying the poster’s universal appeal. Indeed, Stuart Manley believes that the Ministry of Information’s decision to release the awkwardly-worded Your Courage and Freedom is in Peril posters first was an error in judgement, and that:

If they had started with [Keep Calm and Carry On], I think it would have been just as popular then as it is now.”

But why, among the millions of pieces of propaganda produced during the Second World War, did this particular poster become so popular? What is it about those five simple words that speaks to so many people worldwide? According to design historian Susannah Walker, the poster succinctly encapsulates a romanticized view of British wartime resolve and stoicism and builds a bridge between that past and the present:

[It is] not only as a distillation of a crucial moment in Britishness, but also [an] inspiring message from the past to the present in a time of crisis.”

Professor Jim Aulich, a propaganda expert at Manchester Metropolitan University, argues that the poster’s power lays in its simple, non-partisan message:

It speaks to peoples’ personal neuroses. It’s not ideological, it’s not urging people to fight for freedom like some propaganda posters did.”

Mary Manley, on the other hand, is rather less philosophical, stating:

No other country could have that phrase and have it so redolent of a people. In America, it would be ‘Keep calm and go on Oprah Winfrey and blab’. There’s something about British dignity.”

Expand for References

Lewis, Rebecca, 1939: the Three Posters, Keep Calm and Carry on and Other Second World War Posters, 2004, https://web.archive.org/web/20150402071239/http://ww2poster.co.uk/2009/04/1939-3-posters/

Hughes, Stuart, The Greatest Motivational Poster Ever? BBC News, February 4, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7869458.stm

Irving, Henry, Keep Calm and Carry On – The Compromise Behind the Slogan, UK Government, June 27, 2014, https://history.blog.gov.uk/2014/06/27/keep-calm-and-carry-on-the-compromise-behind-the-slogan/

Chu, Henry, Keep Calm and Carry On…Into a Feud, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 3, 2013, https://www.smh.com.au/world/keep-calm-and-carry-on–into-a-feud-20130503-2ix55.html

Bustillos, Maria, The Vicious Trademark Battle Over ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ The Awl, October 5, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20160301012125/http://www.theawl.com/2011/10/keep-calm-and-carry-on-trademark-fight

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