The History of 'Keep Calm and Carry On'

Pillows with British War Slogan. Getty Images

Over recent years, in gift shops and online retailers, there has been an explosion in one theme: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Originally a poster from Britain during the Second World War, you can now buy the simple but reassuring message on almost anything, ready for display in your house or office. There’s just one small problem: the poster wasn’t used during the war, and hardly anyone ever saw it. Thanks to doctoral research from Dr. Rebecca Lewis, we now know the story.

The Unused Poster

In 1939, it became apparent to many people in Britain that a war on the continent was inevitable. Hitler had broken promise after promise, and there seemed little chance he wouldn’t take a decision which provoked war. To this end, Britain’s Ministry of Information decided that one thing which might suffer during the war, especially during the aerial bombardment many had calculated would cause massive losses, was the civilian morale. To this end it was decided – although not without objections – to create five million morale boosting posters which could be quickly pasted up.

Designs were created, and three soon went into action. The first pair bore the following messages: ‘Freedom is in Peril: Defend it with all Your Might’, and ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will bring us Victory’. These were handed out while a third, the now iconic ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was held back to be used when the German bombing campaign really bit.

Other, more specific, posters were also created, such as one explaining ‘Our Fighting Men Depend on You’, aimed at docks and factories.

But the first period of the war passed without this bombing, and so Keep Calm, all two and a half million copies, remained in storage. By the time the Germans did start bombing Britain in the Blitz, feedback had passed back to the Ministry that people didn’t like the posters, that they found them patronising, so they were never used.

The Ministry had to defend itself against accusations of waste and stupidity, and most Calm Calms were pulped, with only a rare few passed into the hands of collectors and museums.

21st Century Icon

So why is this poster so well known in Britain, and growing popularity elsewhere? In 2000, the owner of Barter Books purchased a box of potential stock at an auction, and found an original Keep Calm and Carry On poster at the bottom. He put it up behind the desk, and after being inundated with requests, printed a few more, and then – after gaining government permission – released a modern version. No trademark was sought, and others jumped on the bandwagon. Thanks to Britain’s nostalgia for the idea of plucky wartime Brits keeping calm, a twenty first century icon was born out of a failed wartime idea barely anyone actually saw. But thanks to the poster, and now the mugs etc. etc., people believe this was a key wartime edict. And, of course, people did just what the poster said… just without the poster.

Dr. Lewis’ full Doctoral Thesis – ‘The Planning, Design and Reception of British Home Front Propaganda Posters of the Second World War’ - is available online under a Creative Commons licence here.

She maintains a blog tracking the murky legal battles which have sprung up as people have chased the money.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The History of 'Keep Calm and Carry On'." ThoughtCo, Mar. 23, 2016, Wilde, Robert. (2016, March 23). The History of 'Keep Calm and Carry On'. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The History of 'Keep Calm and Carry On'." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 24, 2017).