Keep Calm and Carry On was a propaganda poster produced by the British government in 1939 during the beginning of the Second World War, intended to raise the morale of the British public in the event of invasion. Seeing only limited distribution, it was little known. The poster was rediscovered in 2000 and has been re-issued by a number of private companies, and used as the decorative theme for a range of other products. There were only two known surviving examples of the poster outside government archives until a collection of about 20 originals was brought in to the Antiques Roadshow in 2012 by the daughter of an ex-Royal Observer Corps member.
The poster was initially produced by the Ministry of Information, in 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War. It was intended to be distributed in order to strengthen morale in the event of a wartime disaster. Over 2,500,000 copies were printed, although the poster was distributed only in limited numbers. The designer of the poster is not known.
The poster was third in a series of three. The previous two posters from the series, "Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might" (400,000 printed) and "Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory" (800,000 printed) and were issued and used across the country for motivational purposes, as the Ministry of Information assumed that the events of the first weeks of the war would demoralise the population. Planning for the posters started in April 1939; by June designs were prepared, and by August 1939, they were on their way to the printers, to be placed up within 24 hours of the outbreak of war. The posters were designed to have a uniform device, be a design associated with the Ministry of Information, and have a unique and recognisable lettering, with a message from the King to his people. An icon of a crown was chosen to head the poster, rather than a photograph. The slogans were created by civil servants, with a career civil servant, Waterfield, coming up with "Your Courage" as "a rallying war-cry that will bring out the best in everyone of us and put us in an offensive mood at once". These particular posters were designed as "a statement of the duty of the individual citizen", un-pictorial, to be accompanied by more colloquial designs. The "Your Courage" poster was much more famous during the war, as it was the first to go up, very large, and was the first of the Ministry of Information's posters.The press, fearful of censorship, created a backlash, and thus a lot of material related to these posters has been kept by archives.
Keep Calm and Carry On: The secret historyHow Barter Books uncovered the massive second world war poster campaign that nobody ever saw
guardian.co.uk, Friday 9 March 2012
Ever wondered where those nowadays-ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On posters first came from? Nope, me neither – and frankly, more fool both of us. Someone posted the link to a video purporting to tell the "story of how Barter Books found the Keep Calm and Carry On poster & made it a global hit" on Twitter the other day, and honestly, I wouldn't have clicked on it had I not been intrigued by the fact that it featured the name of one my favourite bookshops. But click on it I did, and here's what I discovered: it turns out that not only are Barter Books' owners Stuart and Mary Manley brilliant at selling books, they're also brilliant at giving birth to country-wide trends, too.
The video tells the story of the Keep Calm posters, which were commissioned by the government during the second world war as part of a wider poster campaign designed to boost morale among the civilian population. Some 2.5m copies of our poster were printed, but in the end they were kept back; "held in reserve, intended for use only in times of crisis or invasion", which happily never came. 50 years later, Stuart found one in a box of books he'd bought at auction, and Mary put it up by the till. Apparently, customers were so taken with it that the pair began making copies - and an iconic noughties image was born.
It's a lovely video, as much for its shots of Barter Books - once a Victorian railway station; now overflowing with well-stocked shelves - as for the story it tells. But the story's a fine one, too, and the sentiment of the poster, which overexposure had led me to dismiss as trite, becomes moving and inspiring again when resituated in its original context of genuine threat and principled resistance. Enjoy.