In 1997, I first wrote about Keep Calm and Carry On as a side-note in my undergraduate dissertation. In 2004, it was once again mentioned briefly (when looking at the series it was created in) in my PhD on ‘The planning, design and reception of British Home Front propaganda posters’ at the University of Winchester, and in 2005, it wasn’t even considered relevant for the content that I prepared for ‘The Art of War‘ for The National Archives.
In March 2009, via a press request from the Daily Express, I discovered that Keep Calm and Carry On had ‘become a thing’, and started sharing the information I had from within my PhD, and collecting variations of it as it appeared in the press. In 2012, Charlie Brooker complained that we should give up making up variations of the slogan, but the design and the slogan continues to appear everywhere, in fact we could say that it has become ‘iconic’, although few know the full true story behind the poster.
I am delighted to announce that this is being rectified, as on on 26th October 2017, my 80-page book Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster, published by the Imperial War Museum, will be available to buy – it’s a perfect stocking filler – drawing on years of historical research but designed to be very readable (as is my other book Raising Children in a Digital Age) – and it reveals a number of interesting facts that readers may be unaware of!
Look out for the Imperial War Museum press release today.
What is the book about?
The book tells the story of the now infamous Keep Calm and Carry On poster, produced by the British government in the Second World War. The poster was part of a series of three (with another produced shortly after) designed to keep morale up on the outbreak of war, when it was expected that the country would be subjected to immediate and sustained bombardment. As noted, in my earlier work, Keep Calm and Carry On was merely a footnote to the other two posters in the series ‘Your Courage‘, and ‘Freedom is in Peril‘ – known as the ‘red posters’, despite the fact that they also came in green and blue! Those two posters, that were displayed almost as soon as the war started attracted negative coverage from the press who were a) threatened by possible censorship b) felt that the government was out of touch with contemporary thinking as to the kind of messages that were appropriate.
This book is divided into 4 sections:
- Posters: A Propaganda Device, which looks particularly at First World War posters
- Maintaining Morale in a State of Total War, which looks particularly at Second World War posters in general
- Creating ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, which tells the story of the development of Keep Calm and Carry On in 1939
- Rediscovery and Legacy of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, which looks at the 21st century story of Keep Calm and Carry On, after its discovery by Barter Books in 2001.
Overall, the book seeks to set the story of that well known poster against the wider archival research I did for my PhD in an accessible and interesting way.
In the press release, I say “The design of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has penetrated into our everyday lives since its rediscovery in 2001. In this new book, the life, death and resurgence of the design is placed into the context of posters in the wartime period, whilst tapping into why the poster has become such a cultural phenomenon.”
Why is it being published now?
For years, when I have said to people what my PhD research is about, I’ve got the response ‘ah, Your Country Needs You‘ (well yes, but that’s First World War), whereas over the past few years, it has very much changed to ‘ah, Keep Calm and Carry On‘, although very few people seem to know that it wasn’t actually used during the war, or that it in preparation many months before war was declared. I’ve never wanted to be an ivory tower academic, so I have always wanted my research to have a wider reach, and be accessible to others. As a trained historian, I think an understanding of the past helps us understand where we are in the present, as people, and as a nation. I continue to draw on aspects of this in my contemporary work as Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing and Manchester Metropolitan University: good communication and understanding of your audience are key to good marketing on any platform!
Keep Calm and Carry On items continue to appear in every tourist shop, and my Google alert for the phrase still pings every time that there is a crisis – it’s incredibly resonant with the British public, but also more widely around the world – Americans in particular brought it during the financial crisis, and a large number have been sold to German nationals! The Imperial War Museum has a commitment to tell people’s stories from wartime, and in the year of their 100th anniversary, they were keen to commission this short book about one of the key items within their archives that the public is interested in, and wants to know more about.
Why do you think the phrase has become so popular?
Barter Books discovered the poster in the bottom of an archive box in 2001; they sold copies from their shop; in 2005 it was picked up by The Guardian newspaper after which 9,000 were sold in a month. They sold it to doctors’ surgeries, hospitals, schools, army bases, embassies, government departments, and even to Downing Street, and felt it struck a chord anywhere that works at a hectic pace. In 2009 it went global, and I started collecting variations.
- Celebrities wearing the slogan on T-shirts brought it to public attention, including Rupert Grint at a Harry Potter film premiere, Chris Evans on The One Show, and James May on Top Gear, and it was known that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had it up in his office.
- The fact that we live in a digital age where things can be cheaply and easily mixed, remixed and shared, has allowed for global variations – and PR is one of those jobs that everyone thinks they can do – or that they can come up with a clever variation. Once something has gone viral online, it tends to keep reappearing, as attention tends to bring more attention). It’s seen as ‘very British’, but also ‘transcends Britishness!
- The economic crisis of 2008/9 truly pushed the phrase into the public eye in a way that it seems it will never leave!
- According to British fashion historian James Laver, in his ‘Laver’s Law’ published in 1937, something becomes ‘charmingly fashionable’ around 70 years after its initial production. The year 2009 was exactly 70 years after the ‘Keep Calm’ poster’s production.
In the UK there has been a constant ‘looking back’ to WW2 ‘a time that we all pulled together over a cup of tea’ in a nostalgic fashion. Nostalgia hits when times seem unsettled, we look back to a time when things felt safer and we look to those times as to how we deal with the current crisis. It doesn’t matter if it was ‘the true reality’ (you can ask my colleague Sarah Penny for more about nostalgia and marketing). People talk about how Keep Calm and Carry On as a phrase has resonance for them in times of crisis, e.g. for me right now, that’s breast cancer (and yes, it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month in October).
How popular was the poster during wartime?
The Keep Calm and Carry On poster wasn’t used during the wartime. Notes in files at The National Archives show that at the end of Sept there was a call to ‘reserve our main poster for the crash of the first air bombardment’. On 20 November 1939, it was distributed regionally to e.g. post offices to be held in storage for distribution in case of need. The paperwork trail then goes cold: the most likely story that can be pieced together is that due to paper shortages the posters would have been pulped, but because of the wide distribution there will the odd poster or roll of posters found (like there was on the Antiques Roadshow). I’ve seen a couple of images of small version stuck up on the wall, but it is entirely possible that these were put up without official sanction – after looking at these posters since 1997, and investigating these posters throughout, there’s no evidence they were ever officially sanctioned for display. By the time that the Blitz arrived in 1940, the notion of ‘The People’s War’ was popular, and it was clear that people wanted to be told what to do, rather than needed to be told to keep their chins up, and this kind of message was probably considered inappropriate for use, especially after all the other ‘red posters’ were given such a negative reception by the press.
What might I find out that is new about the poster?
If you hadn’t already picked up by now, the poster was part of a series, but never used during the war itself. Unlike contemporary messages, preparing, printing, distributing all took time, so the progress of the war, and the public mindset, needed to be anticipated in advance. The design was still at the printers when war broke out: colour designs were seen as more effective, although more £, but the paper took days to prove.
- That preparations for wartime propaganda started in 1935, for this set of posters in particular in April 1939. The government didn’t mention any preparations publicly til June 1939, as it was an admission that war was inevitable.
- The artist for this poster is most likely to be Ernest Wallcousins who created all the roughs in June 1939, although the slogan itself was designed by a group of civil servants, and signed off by the Home Seceretary, Sir Samuel Hoare.
- The poster was intended to ‘bear a distinctive uniform device’ and be ‘difficult or impossible for the enemy to print reproductions’, with a ‘special and handsome typeface’: very ironic for a design that has been copied and reshaped so much.
- The most expensive original Keep Calm and Carry On poster that was sold at the time of writing was £18,240, with only the ‘Your Country needs you’ poster ever sold for more. Approximately 30 are known to be in existence, although there could be more rolled up in the back of a cupboard, as over 3.6 million posters of the series were printed, of which 65% were Keep Calm and Carry On.
- We could say that there is a 4th design ‘Don’t Help the Enemy! Careless Talk May Give Away Vital Secrets’. It follows the same design, and followed swiftly from The War Office as war was declared.
… and of course, they’ll be more!
What versions have you seen?
- Keep Calm and Carry On Shopping
- Panic Wildly and Run Away
- Keep Calm and Carry Yarn
- Calm You Shall Keep and Carry On You Must
- Keep Corbyn and Carry On
- Och Wheesht and Get Oan Wae It
- Don’t Panic, Put the Kettle On
- Keep Calm and Kill Zombies
- Save Water and Drink Champagne
- Brew Up and Sleep In
- Keep Calm and Eat a Sausage
- I’m Irish, I Can’t Keep Calm
- Keep Calm and Fake a British Accent
- Keep Calm and Reign On
- Now Panic and Freak Out
- Get Excited and Make Things
- Keep Korma and Curry On
- Keep Psalm and Pray on
- Enough with these variations already
- I’m Really Not Happy About This (at recent protests)
I’m really interested to see (British) regional variations, such as Stop your squinnying, it will be kushti – Portsmouth and Keep Calm and Do it Dreckley – Cornwall
About the Author
Bex Lewis has a background as a cultural communications historian and digital practitioner, with a PhD in Second World War posters, in which she wrote the history of Keep Calm and Carry On. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and a Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University. She is a frequent speaker, writer and facilitator, and is author of the popular Raising Children in a Digital Age (2014).
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