A Brief History of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’
The chances are, you’ve seen the iconic red ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster at least once, or at least a similar poster of the same style. But do you know the history behind the quintessentially British piece of propaganda?
In the spring of 1939, during the build-up to World War Two, the British government commissioned the Ministry of Information to design and print a series of three posters intended to boost the morales of people across the nation during WWII.
It should, the British government said, feature a typeface that couldn’t be easily copied or counterfeited by enemy governments. They also said it should feature the crown of King George VI, and be comprised of only two colours.
The first poster read, “your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory”, while the second said “freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might”. And the third, which was printed over 2.5million times, carried the words “Keep Calm and Carry On”.
In September of 1939, the first two posters were officially distributed and pinned up in shops and railway stations nationwide. The third poster, however, was retained by the government for distribution only in times of invasion or oppressive crisis. But it was never sent out.
Fast forward sixty years later, and the Keep Calm and Carry On poster had been long forgotten. That was until it was rediscovered in a quaint little book store in Alnwick, Northumberland, in 2000.
Stuart Manley was sifting through a box of dusty books he bought at auction for the Barter Books shop he ran with his wife, Mary, when he came across one of the original Keep Calm and Carry On posters. He showed it to Mary, who liked it so much that she had it framed and hung on the wall beside the till.
When customers showed an interest in the poster and kept asking about it, the couple decided to start printing off copies and selling them, and soon, the poster wormed its way into the public domain. It eventually made it onto the web, where Photoshop-savvy people began parodying it. One well-known instance is the ‘Keep Calm and Drink Tea’ poster, which has a little teacup graphic in place of the crown.
Such edited versions of the poster started popping up in shops like HMV, and gift stores across the country, alongside blown-up copies of the original. Past Times, the now-closed franchise of luxury gifts centred around wartime memorabilia (that had stores in Gunwharf Quays and Palmerston Road) also picked up on the design, printing it onto everything from mugs and playing cards to teddy bears.
Ebury, a publishing firm, outed a little book of encouraging inspirational quotes in 2009 entitled ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, which proved so popular that they released a follow-up soon after, ‘Sod Calm and Get Angry’. Another publisher, Summersdale, did the same thing, printing small booklets in a similar format, such as ‘Now Panic and Freak Out’ or ‘S*** Happens so Get Over It’.
Also in 2009, UK band Stereophonics launched their seventh studio album, named ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. While it wasn’t nearly as popular as their previous records, it still inevitability made more people aware of the wartime poster after which it was named.
With the poster well and truly ‘out there’, some sort of legal dispute was bound to emerge eventually, and in September 2011, one did. The owner of Keep Calm and Carry On Ltd., an online store selling an array of KCaCO merch, claimed trademark rights to the poster’s message, and opened a lawsuit against a woman who was also printing it on products and selling them online.
Nowadays, it continues to appear all over the Internet and in gift shops galore, to the point of over-saturation. Countess low-quality rip-offs have appeared that only loosely resemble the original, using fonts such as Arial instead of a typeface more closely mimicking that which the Ministry of Information used in 1939. If you tried to search for that specific font, though, you’d be out of luck. Nobody seems to know what it is, but Avenir 65 Medium is often cited by type-savvy folks as being quite a close match. Thankfully, someone has built a totally new typeface simply called ‘Keep Calm’, that even includes the crown in its character set.
Sites like Keep-Calm-O-Matic have further popularised the posters, resulting in split opinions. Some people truly appreciate the meaning behind ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, while others simply jump on the bandwagon in creating their own iterations and sharing them. But others aren’t so fond, even going as far as saying they’re sick of seeing the posters everywhere. Journalist and broadcaster Charlie Brooker tweeted a few months back that every time he sees one of them, he gets 95% less calm.
The hype around the posters is beginning to gradually die down, but they’re still everywhere online and constantly taking up whole shelves in gift shops worldwide. It’s believed that most of the originals were pulped, but maybe history will surprise us once again. Perhaps, in the future at some point, someone will uncover a whole pile of the original posters, just as Stuart Manley uncovered one on that faithful day back in 2000.