The Strange Story Of Keeping Calm & Carrying On

Great Britain

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!

16 comments on “The Strange Story Of Keeping Calm & Carrying On”

  1. Graham says:

    Now there are websites where you can create your own versions. My personal favorite was GET STUFFED AND PISS OFF.

  2. Susanna Carroll says:

    ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ annoys me a lot. “Sorted” is usually drawled by some cocky sort, who you just know is unlikely to sort anything.

    “Cheeky” as in “Cheeky Nando’s” or “Cheeky curry” etc , is another annoying construction usually delivered by the same cocky type as “Sorted”…

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    Well is youngsters in the 80’swe used the phrase FOAD a lot. So I guess many people like slogans of one sort and another.

    The posters I remember from the war were ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Careless Talk, Costs Lives.’ And of course the age old phrase ‘The Walls Have Ears.’ and ‘Loose Lips’, apart from the ‘Dig for Victory’, I still hear these used from time to time.

    It is surprising how this did catch hold.

    Wayne.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Wayne, even in Canada those posters were used. They must have been because I remember them from my childhood. Have you ever noticed how your mind stores up images and you remember them in their proper context whether or not you actually saw them at that time? Unless that’s me with a sloppy memory. The tag lines hung on at least and were often quoted in ways similar to the Keep calm… phrase in the illustration at the beginning. Look at those phrases. Does following the first half make possible the second? You have to follow the intent of the original.

  5. Roger says:

    Was “DO NOT PANIC” made universally popular by The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or did H2G2 use it because it was already – as they say – iconic?
    I’m old enough to know, but don’t.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    The first time I saw this, was in a collected edition of Alan Moore and Kevin O’ Neill’s frankly astonishing ‘The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, where it had a different device than the crown, and had a faintly sinister air about it – not one of hope, but of coercion. It seemed to me to be like a slogan from ‘1984’. It wasn’t until several months later that I saw the original. My favourite version is a daft one, which makes no real sense, but it appealed to my weird sense of humour, and love of old movies. The background is of a figure running away from a low-flying aeroplane, and it reads: ‘KEEP CALM AND CARY GRANT’. Of course it does.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    Always enjoyed the slogans in Dad’s Army – Lance corporal Jones’ “Don’t panic, don’t panic!” and Private Frazer’s “We’re doomed. We’re all doomed!”.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – One of my favourite t-shirts has Corporal Jones on it, along with, I think, his absolute best, and slightly rude catchphrase, viz. “They don’t like it up ’em!”.

  9. Ken Mann says:

    Completely irrelevantly, but as an illustration of cultural change;
    One of the creators of Dad’s Army was David Croft. Before his involvement in that he was a lyricist and wrote the lyrics to the songs in the stage musical version of Ann Veronica with music by Cyril Ornadel. They also wrote songs for a series of records for children adapting tales by Beatrix Potter. Vivian Leigh would read the story with dialogue and songs from the characters performed by among others Graham Stark as Squirrel Nutkin and Dame Cicely Courtneidge as Jemima Puddleduck. Imagine if you can the child audience being treated with that kind of respect now.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Roger, yes, my understanding is that H2G2 did make it popular. It’s an odd example of reverse influence, sort of.
    Ken Mann, do you think those readings are still available somewhere?

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Ken – in a similar vein, I had a record when I was a child the content of which was creepy stories, read by… Boris Karloff. Yes, really. That lovely, slightly lispy voice was made for telling stories, creepy or otherwise. Children’s entertainment these days seems to be short, trite and a bit shouty. Bloody rubbish, actually. I was watching some old episodes of ‘Captain Scarlet’, a show I adored in 1967, when I was four, and it’s pretty dark for a children’s show, with some big ideas. It struck me that most four year olds today would have great trouble understanding the premise of the show, or even following an episode, as they are shot, and edited, like grown-up TV. My five year old nephew watches lots of kid’s TV, with cartoons and animated explosions, etc., but was quite disturbed when I showed him some clips from ‘Thunderbirds’ (1965-6), being frightened of the real explosions on the show. He just couldn’t follow what was going on, thinking it was real. We were going to show him ‘Jason And The Argonauts’, a movie beloved by my brother and I – we both saw it at about five years old, likewise ‘The Time Machine’, but sadly, I don’t think the attention span, or indeed, the intelligence to follow such movies is in evidence.

  12. Ken Mann says:

    David Croft’s official site has mp3s of them under http://www.davidcroft.co.uk/Stage-Musicals/
    They were part of a larger “junior HMV” project of 45rpm singles pressed in vivid colours from around 1960

  13. Helen Martin says:

    It’s just a matter of exposure, Ian. If you’ve never seen “that kind of thing”, whatever “that” is, you have to analyse it mentally to figure how to understand it. Books, movies, comic books, sky writing, they’re all confusing the first time. Make sure the boy gets to see other examples.
    Interesting that cartoon explosions are pretend but if it appears to have actually happened then it is real and therefor scary. If he doesn’t internalise the concept of dramatic filming (or stage effects for that matter) he’ll be easily duped later on. “I saw it on telly so it must be real.”

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – You’re correct, of course. My mum would sit with me as a child, and I remember her telling me – without spoiling the illusion of a movie, that if I felt frightened, then just to imagine that I was watching through the camera, with people all round me, each helping to make the film. I have never been frightened by anything I’ve seen in a movie, ever, because of that advice. And she told me that as we sat in the cinema in 1967, when I was four, waiting for ‘Doctor Dolittle’, starring Rex Harrison, to start. The movie was a massive flop, financially, but I loved it, and it started a love of the cinema that has not diminished. The picture was the main thing, but I love the ambience of the cinema, and, I know it’s wrong, but I miss people smoking in the theatre, for at some points, if the fug was thick enough, you could look up, and see the movie projected on to the smoke, a numinous image that hovered aloft.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    The movie shining through the smoke! Yes, I remember that. If you’re viewing in a dusty venue you can still get the effect.

  16. Chris Lancaster says:

    For anyone in that part of the world and who is into books, Barter Books is a great place to visit. It’s an absolutely huge secondhand bookshop in what used to be Alnwick train station, with a great cafe where the station buffet used to be.

    There are rooms and rooms of books. The best thing is that, as the name suggests, you can take in books you don’t want any more; they’ll pay you for them in the form of credit that you can spend on books in the shop. We make the 80 mile drive up from North Yorkshire about once a month for breakfast and books. It’s well worth a visit.

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