In 2000, one of the owners of Barter Books, Stuart Manley, was going through a box of dusty old books bought at auction. At the bottom of the box he saw a piece of paper. He took it out, unfolded it, liked what he saw, and showed it to his wife, Mary. Mary liked it, too. In fact, she liked it enough to have it framed and put up near the shop till.
It would prove to be one of the most important finds Stuart and Mary ever made.
The old WWII poster (for that is what it was) proved so popular with customers that a year later the shop began selling facsimile copies.
Since that time, the rediscovered 'KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON' poster, copied and recopied (as well as parodied!) by others, has sold in the millions to become one of the first truly iconic images of the twenty-first century.
This is its story.
In the Spring of 1939, with war against Germany all but inevitable, the British Government's Ministry of Information commissioned a series of propaganda posters to be distributed throughout the country at the onset of hostilities. It was feared that in the early months of the war Britain would be subjected to gas attacks, heavy bombing raids and even invasion. The posters were intended to offer the public reassurance in the dark days which lay ahead.
The posters were required to be uniform in style and were to feature a 'special and handsome' typeface making them difficult for the enemy to counterfeit. The intent of the poster was to convey a message from the King to his people, to assure them that 'all necessary measures to defend the nation were being taken', and to stress an 'attitude of mind' rather than a specific aim. On the eve of a war which Britain was ill-equipped to fight, it was not possible to know what the nation's future aims and objectives would be.
At the end of August 1939 three designs went into production with an overall print budget of £20,600 for five million posters. The first poster, of which over a million were printed, carried a slogan suggested by a civil servant named Waterfield. Using the crown of George VI as the only graphic device, the stark red and white poster read 'Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will Bring Us Victory'. A similar poster, of which around 600,000 were issued, carried the slogan 'Freedom is in Peril'. But the third design, of which over 2.5 million posters were printed, simply read 'Keep Calm and Carry On'.
The first two designs were distributed in September 1939 and immediately began to appear in shop windows, on railway platforms, and on advertising hoardings up and down the country. But the 'Keep Calm' posters were held in reserve, intended for use only in times of crisis or invasion. Although some may have found their way onto Government office walls, the poster was never officially issued and so remained virtually unseen by the public - unseen, that is, until a copy turned up more than fifty years later in that box of dusty old books bought in auction by Barter Books.
The Ministry of Information commissioned numerous other propaganda posters for use on the home front during the Second World War. Some have become well-known and highly collectable, such as the cartoonist Fougasse's 'Careless Talk Costs Lives' series. But we will probably never know who the graphic artist was who was responsible for the 'Keep Calm' poster, but it's to his or her credit that long after the war was won, people everywhere recognize the brilliance of its simple timeless design and still find reassurance in the very special 'attitude of mind' it conveys.
Primary source of information: Lewis, R M, 'Undergraduate Thesis: The planning, design and reception of British home front propaganda posters of the Second World War': Written April 1997. Accessed April 2007. ww2poster.co.uk/phd-research/undergraduate-dissertation-1997/