Fashion Magazine

Keep Calm and Carry On – a Visual History of an Iconic Wartime Poster

By Fibers @fibers

It seems you can step out your front door without seeing the words “Keep Calm and Carry On” on a t-shirt, coffee mug or poster. Where did this comforting phrase come from and what launched it into the collective consciousness?

View the full-sized Keep Calm data visualization here.

World War II, history, historical infographic, data visualization

The line dates back to a propaganda campaign launched by the British government in World War II, the bold white letters on a red background with the crown was designed for the purpose of boosting moral in case of a German invasion. The invasion never happened and almost all of the posters were destroyed and the slogan never distributed among Britain’s war torn masses. “After being forgotten for more than half a century, a rare original of the now famous WWII poster was rediscovered in a box of old books bought at auction in one of the largest and most popular secondhand bookshops in Britain – Barter Books,” reported KeepCalmHome.com, “When the bookshop owners had the poster framed and put up in the shop, customer interest was so great that in 2001 the couple started producing facsimile copies for sale – copies which were soon copied and recopied to make of the Keep Calm poster one of the first truly iconic images of the 21st century.”

Stuart Manely, the owner of Barter Books, thought the poster had a nice feeling about it – little did he know that this poster would become a cultural icon.

“It wasn’t until 2005 that all hell broke loose. A copy of the print appeared in a national newspaper, and suddenly our phone was ringing off the hook.” Manley told the Independent. “Our website crashed because there were too many visitors logging on. In order to cope, our bookshop turned into a military operation. We were dispatching 3,000 posters each week.”

Over the years the poster has only grown in popularity, possibly fueled by economic uncertainty in the wake of the melt-down of 2008 and the debt crisis in Europe. According to the Guardian reported in 2009, Manley sold around 41,000 posters, keepcalmandcarryon.com ships about 300-500 products a week, and the Keep Calm Gallery’s Lucas Lepola is selling approximately 500 a month.

In that same article quoted Alain Samson, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, saying that in times of difficulty, “people are brought together by looking for common values or purposes, symbolized by the crown and the message of resilience. The words are also particularly positive, reassuring, in a period of uncertainty, anxiety, even perhaps of cynicism.”

Until recently only two known copies of the poster existed outside the British Archive, the Manley’s and one sold to a private collector now in the possession of WarTimePoster.co.uk.

In February 2012 the market of original Keep Calm posters was practically flooded when Moragh Turnbul turned up at an Antiques Roadshow with what she thought was just a box of posters from her father. According to the DailyMail.co.uk, Mr. Turnbull served as a member of the Royal Observer Corp and received a box of 15 posters to put up around his home in case of a German Invasion. The invasion never happened and he kept the posters. He eventually gave the posters to his daughter. Miss Turnbull didn’t really know what she had until Roadshow expert Paul Atterbury told her she probably had the world only ‘stock’ of the famous posters, probably worth several thousand pounds.

But while the original posters are still very rare (really just 17), the world is not wanting for Keep Calm remakes and parodies. Fibers.com even hopped on the band wagon partnering with Keep Calm Shop on etsy to turn Keep Calm posters into Keep Calm t-shirts.

So remember when the going gets tough, the waves crash in, you feel like the world is crashing down around you – well number one, it’s probably not as bad as World War II and number two, just keep calm and carry on.


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