The Backstory of “Keep Calm and Carry On” Posters

“Keep Calm and Carry On” is the most famous British World War II poster that few people knew about until a half century later. Virtually all of the 2.5 million copies printed in anticipation of plastering the UK with them when war broke out, never saw the light of day.

It all started in the spring of 1939, as England braced itself for a German invasion. To prepare citizens for that inevitability, the UK Ministry of Information (MOI) formed a Home Publicity Committee made up of civil servants, volunteer academics, publicists and publishers to plan a campaign urging citizens to keep a “stiff upper lip.” The committee met weekly over lunch hour and suggested various slogans — e.g, “England Is Prepared” and “We’re Going to See This Through.” The committee proposed a series of seven or more morale-boosting posters, which the Treasury vetoed due to cost, giving them less than half of their requested budget. Ultimately, the MOI settled on three poster messages: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory”; “Freedom Is In Peril, Defend It With All Your Might,” and “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Someone suggested “Keep Calm, Don’t Panic,” but that was nixed.

Well-known illustrator Ernest Wallcousins was commissioned to design the posters, but at the Treasury’s insistence, the posters had to be limited just to text, except for a stylized Tudor crown repurposed from a Royal direct mail message that didn’t happen.

The posters were still in production when war was declared on September 3, 1939. The posters were sent to local distribution points with instructions not to post them until severe bombing began. The few posters that were displayed received, at best, a lukewarm, if not hostile reception, with the public remarking that the messages were “boring,” “too commonplace to be inspiring,” “too abstract.” An angry Parliament charged that the MOI didn’t understand publicity, and the press attacked the poster campaign as “waste and paste.” In less than four weeks, the MOI cancelled the entire campaign. Except for the few forgotten copies, the posters were pulped to meet the severe paper shortage.

Fast forward to the year 2000 when Stuart and Mary Manley who owned Bartle Books, a second-hand bookshop in Ainwick, Northumberland, happened upon an original “Keep Calm” poster in an old box of used books they bought at auction. Charmed by the quaint WWII message, they framed the poster and hung it by the cash register where dozens of customers inquired if they could buy a copy. The shop reproduced the poster, and other companies followed suit by printing the slogan and spin-offs of the slogan on all kinds of merchandise. In the 21st century, “Keep Calm and Carry On” reflects a less cynical time when even in wartime, people saw the virtue of keeping their composure and dignity.