The Strange Story Of Keeping Calm & Carrying On
I’m in Barcelona listening to a Spanish song on the radio, which has as part of its chorus; ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’, such is the international fame of this simple little phrase. How on earth did it conquer Europe (and who knows, other parts of the world) so ubiquitously?
It started out as a motivational poster produced by the UK government in 1939 in preparation for WWII, one of many messages intended to raise public morale, because we were being threatened with mass air attacks on major cities. There were three Home Publicity posters (the others read “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom Is in Peril / Defend It With All Your Might“). Many members of the public who saw these regarded them as patronising and divisive.
The typeface is Caslon Egyptian, the first commercial sans serif typeface, and a classic of crispness. It’s seated under a Tudor crown and that’s it.
2.45 million copies of the ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’ posters were printed but were hardly ever publicly displayed. Instead it was held back, then most copies were pulped owing to the paper shortage. It certainly did not become a catchphrase as oft-repeated as the ghastly ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ (for which I feel partly responsible, as I wrote ‘The Whole Love Thing. Sorted.’ poster for the series ‘Queer As Folk’).
Anyway, it remained little known until a copy was rediscovered in 2000 at Barter Books in a village called Alnwick. In 2000, Stuart Manley, co-owner with his wife Mary of the Northumberland bookshop, was sorting through a box of used books when he uncovered one of the original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters. The couple framed it and hung it up by the cash register.
It attracted so much interest that Manley began to produce and sell copies. Other companies followed suit, and the design rapidly began to be used as the theme for a wide range of products. Inevitably law suits, copyright infringements and lowlife cash-ins followed, proof that a great idea has a thousand mothers.
At first it was popular because it tapped into typical British stoicism – stiff upper lip, self-discipline, fortitude, and remaining calm in adversity – then it became ironic, then aligned to the present day’s difficulties and finally parodied.
The poster is still recognised everywhere, with ever-permutating versions appearing. What puzzles me is why this poster? Why not one of the others? Perhaps because many were too specific. It’s hard to be succinct in four or five words – that’s what copywriting teaches you – but sometimes the right combination clicks, and this became a global success, albeit nearly 80 years after it was needed!