“Keep Calm, Carry on was one of three designs that were actually designed before the outbreak of war in 1939. So, we have “Keep Calm, Carry on”, we have “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will bring us victory” and the third poster was “Freedom is in Peril. Defend it with all your Might.”
In fact, Keep Calm, Carry on, although rolled out to various distribution centres right in, in September 1939, ready to be shown was never actually shown, the other two were and the other two were shown around the country in the first few months of the of the war, and they were seen by a huge number of people.
The Ministry of Information was set up by the government at the beginning of the Second World War and they were really trying to think up what messages do we want to put across to the general public. And the idea really was all with all three of the posters where they had to have a message of reassurance to the general population. They weren't instructing them to do actually anything tangible, it was more about a mindset really and sort of these, these, really, these attributes that the, the public might need so courage and cheerfulness, which we think of now is actually about the Brits’ Blitz spirit and this idea about freedom being in peril, which was quite an interesting abstract idea to put on a poster. Keep Calm and Carry on was then, was held in reserve so the two posters that went out were the “Your courage” poster and the “Freedom was in peril” poster. But “Keep Calm, Carry on”, with it's very much,much more snappy message actually was held back.
The government really thought we would be subjected to huge aerial bombardment at the beginning of the Second World War, and this didn't happen straight away, it took about a year. The idea was to bring it out when people were really undergoing the worst shocks and really finding life hard and, and, and actually life wasn't at that point. So, they were kept in reserve and because of their reaction to the other two posters, it was decided it wasn't worth actually putting these posters out.
And to put it in a bit of context, carry on in particular was a phrase that's well associated with the First World War. Lloyd George used it in his speech. He talked about carry on business as usual. So this is a case of reviving this kind of way of speaking in a time of total war and looking back to a previous era that perhaps people at the time would have seen that as very old fashioned, coupled with the crown of course representing the King in this message, talking down in fact would have been seen as rather patronising, certainly the two posters that were on display were seen as patronising and rather abstract and people didn't really know what was being asked of them.
Well, so after this, what happened with these first posters the Ministry of Information did start to progress their thinking with posters, and so the next poster was based on speech by Herbert Morrison, who was a Ministry Minister of Supply and it said three words to the whole nation, “Go to it!” And “Go to It” was presented in this rather dynamic way. It's as if the text itself is moving so you can see that they're starting to think of ways to present text and image together in a more eye-catching way and that develops throughout the whole of the Ministry of Information campaigns in the Second World War.
Fougasse famously made the poster “Careless Talk Costs Lives,” and it was a cartoon on that poster. So, it was it was quite humorous, and it talked to people on the level, it wasn't patronising towards them, and it was also very memorable. And he was one of many more sophisticated designers that were employed by the Ministry of Information such as Abram Games, Lewitt-Him and Hans Schleger. Because Fougasse talked about what a poster had to do, a poster has to do three things, has to get your attention. Most people walking along will see a poster and think it's not about me, it's not, it's not, it's not speaking to me and then it has to sort of persuade you to along a course of action. So, it’s this kind of persuasive idea rather than talking down and telling you to do something and the other one, which is really important, is that you have to be able to remember it and tell your friend. And of course, with “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution,” I'm reading it now because I'm not going to remember it. Whereas “Keep Calm, Carry on”, well, it's very snappy.
We know in the 21st century how that's, that's really resonated. Key to this is that some copies did survive. Possibly only poster nerds knew about it for a while, but the key re-discovery is by the Manleys, a couple who ran this book shop in Northumberland. They bought at auction a box of books and at the bottom of this box, low and behold, the poster to “Keep Calm, Carry on.” Stuart Manley particularly liked this poster, he framed it and he put it on the wall in, in the shop. From there on, people started to notice it, there was a lot of interest. And he actually came to IWM, approached us and said, ‘what are the copyright restrictions on this poster, can I reproduce it?’ and of course it's out of copyright, it's Crown copyright and that's part of the key to its success as well.
So, he started producing a few copies. Other people got in on it, it became hugely successful. And propagated through the internet and through national newspapers and things like that. And then, of course, then it was changed and we call these different variations as well.
I think it says something about Britishness and not only does it say something to us British about being British, but it also says around the world it resonates with people. People think that's the British Keep Calm Carry On.
But the other thing about it I feel is I can't imagine it not being ironic. And of course, it was produced, you know, completely unironically. But this red and the white and these, these loud capital letters shouting at you, urging you to Keep Calm, Carry On just completely jars and I think that appeals to our, our sense of irony today and particularly, particularly across the internet and this idea of sort of sharing and, and talking about something.
It just appeals and I think that's why it's been so successfully popular combined with the copyright issue, which means anyone can reproduce it if they want to and anyone, I mean, it's actually very easy to reproduce and you can replace the crown with another design. You just need a red background with white letters and you can write any kind of phrase you want, you know, you can apply it to the Italians who say, “I Can't Keep Calm, I'm Italian”, that's another version I've seen of it or, you know, panic wildly. There's all these different versions and, and it just really it's very much a 21st century story, it suits our internet age.”
The iconic 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster was designed months before the Second World War began. Its message was supposed to boost morale and ensure the public could bear the sacrifice and burden required of them.
However, the striking red and white poster was never officially sanctioned for display and only achieved its prominent position in the public imagination after its rediscovery in 2001.