The Story Behind the “Keep Calm” Poster

April 21, 2022

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We’ve all seen these images plastered everywhere on the web, on t-shirts, and posters with the words “Keep Calm” emblazoned on them. What is the history behind this iconic statement, and how did it become so popular? If you don’t know how it came to be, keep calm, you soon will.

The “Keep Calm” poster was actually one of three posters that originated in 1939. They were produced by the Ministry of Information of the British government to be used as motivational, morale-boosting posters as the country prepared for World War II and the threat of air attacks on the country’s major cities.

The posters featured the royal crown of King George VI, and all had a similar style. The first two posters didn’t have the “Keep Calm” statement, however. One read, “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory,” and the other read, “Freedom is in Peril, Defend It With All Your Might.” The third poster of the series, and the most popular today, was the one that said, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

The original Keep Calm posters

About 2.5 million copies of the “Keep Calm” poster were printed in 1939, but it had been decided that this particular poster would be displayed only after any dangerous air raids or an invasion. The other posters were displayed instead, and the “Keep Calm” posters were put into storage.

The posters never really saw the light of day and were instead destroyed and reduced to pulp in 1940. The overall poster publicity campaign was deemed a complete failure as many people never saw the posters, and others felt patronized by them when they did.

The “Carry On” portion did live on in a leaflet from 1941 called “Beating the Invader” that had a message from Prime Minister Winston Churchill instructing the populace to “stand firm” and “carry on” if an invasion occurred. From then on, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” wasn’t heard about until the turn of the next century.

Stuart Manley, who ran a bookstore with his wife called Barter Books, was sorting a box he had bought at an auction in 2000 when he came across an original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. They hung it up in their store, and because of its popularity with their patrons, they began to make and sell copies of the long-lost poster. From there, the snowball began to roll, and other companies started using the design on all sorts of different products. “Keep Calm and Carry On” had just been commercialized.

A UK company called Keep Calm and Carry On Ltd registered the slogan in the European Union (EU) but was unable to trademark the words in the UK. There was a push to have the registration canceled, but it was rejected, and there is still a trademark in effect in the EU. It looks like the company has managed to get a trademark on the term in Canada, and it seems they have a U.S. pending application, but the overall fight seems far from over.

Besides that, the poster has been used in any number of ways. Parodies, imitations, shirts, you name it, often with the original crown being replaced by some other object. The original civil servant who came up with the slogan is still unknown. It would be interesting to wonder what he or she would think about the craziness their slogan had created so many years later.

A few of the remaining original posters are in the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum in London, and amazingly, fifteen of the posters were discovered on the BBC’s version of Antiques Roadshow. A woman had been given the posters by her father who had been a member of the Royal Observer Corps. One thing is for certain; the “Keep Calm” slogan had become a worldwide phenomenon.

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About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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