Keep Calm and Carry On. The most famous war time propaganda there never was.
For the last couple of months, we have been using the blue “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” poster (left) for our blog series on the links between war historiography and understanding how we deal with the Coronavirus. The poster was issued in early 2020 by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to encourage hygiene in order to avoid the spread of Covid-19. At the same time, it was easily, and probably globally recognisable as a variant of the red widely-known British “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster (right), which came to embody a British wartime spirit of resilience. At the same time it is quoted and referenced in pop culture and social media in various ways and memes – asking the reader to keep calm and drink tea, eat muffins, do yoga, click edit, or the like. Its design is iconic and yet simple and approachable. Its message has been repurposed in hundreds of ways, while always seemingly building up on a certain spirit of Britishness, resilience, stubbornness and self-confidence, based on today’s understanding of a mythological British war experience during the Blitz.
Only, it was never published.
During the years before the outbreak of the war, the Ministry of Information had designed a selection of posters to be published in case of international conflict and German aggression. One line of posters followed a corporate design: All posters were red and white (although today sometimes cited with different colours), with simple graphics and messages.
Their purpose was to boost morale amongst the British population. Two of the three designed posters were published across the country in 1939 and 1940 (“Freedom is at peril. Defend it with all your might.” “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory”). The third one (“Keep Calm and Carry On”) was planned to be used as a last push to morale, in case of a seriously aggravated situation, as for example the immediate threat of a German invasion. Eventually, however, the campaign was discontinued and the “Keep Calm” poster was never used. Surveys had found an overwhelming lack of success of its two predecessor, which were interpreted as too abstract and rather patronising: The Crown was seen to impose authority, the simple messages, the ordering tone was read as out of touch with a modern society, talking to a subject rather than to citizens. Accordingly, “Keep Calm” was let go.
Instead, the Ministry of Information introduced a series of campaigns representing a rapid modernisation of graphic design and texting, leaning on advertisement techniques rather than on traditional ways of a government communicating to the people. They were designed to be more active, more modern, and more eye catching. The “Careless talk costs lives” campaign (1942), purposed to point out the importance of secrecy and the danger of spies (which was linked to an almost obsessive fear of infiltration and “fifth columns” during the early war years) employed photographs, cartoons and wit to address the national audience.
The new campaigns, whether engaging with air raids, blackouts or food shortages, were now designed to attract attention, to persuade, to be catchy. The reader should not only be informed and obey, but be convinced, or at least remember it and tell friends about it. The wartime career of the “Keep Calm” poster was over, it was disposed of as waste paper, and assumingly, in many cases, recycled due to wartime shortage of paper.
It was only in 2001, by coincidence, that remaining copies of the poster were discovered at the bottom of a box of second hand books in Northumbria. After their finder displayed them in their local shop, the poster went on a rapid career. While the “Keep Calm” poster clearly had not fared so well with wartime audiences, it seemed to tick all the boxes with a millennial audience. Increasingly, “Keep calm” was omnipresent, on posters, the internet, even merchandise. How did a World War Two poster, and in particular one that was never published, have this impressive, global success about 50 to 70 years later? How did a Ministry of Information poster achieve this sudden rise in pop culture? What does it mean today and what does it tell us about the 21st century?
When discussing representations of history and historic events in other media, for example films or novels, research has pointed out that they might be a primary source, but a primary source of the times the respective medium has been developed and produced in rather than of the time it depicts. The National Archives have compiled a handy introduction of how to deal with films as historical sources. Following this regard, the film “The Darkest Hour”, for example, is first and foremost a primary source about how Churchill and his politics during the war are interpreted in 2017 (more precisely, by the producers and director of the movie, as well as to a lesser account its financers, actors, and its audience).
In the case of the “Keep Calm” poster, it can acquire a double function – as a primary source for the late 1930s (the time of its origins and design, 1939 in print), it tells a story of the Ministry of Information’s strategy and communication plan. Including the later decision to not publish it in 1939/1940, it tells of the ministry’s change of policy with regard to communication and modernisation of propaganda. At the same time, it may be used as a primary source for the early 21st century, to discuss the use of pop culture and social media, but also contemporary re-interpretation of British history, a new rise of nationalism, and new configuration of British identity. In terms of design, the poster combines strong recognisability, retro chic and versatility, a perfect combination for the use in pop culture and social media memes. Its copyright had meanwhile expired, which allowed reproduction and widespread distribution, not only digitally, but also for the soon transpiring merchandise of all sorts, in particular on T-shirts, tea towels and mugs. In the two past decades of its rediscovery, it served as a symbol for a British war experience which in hindsight was styled more homogenous and more solidary than it had ever been (compare Matthew Sweet’s examples on class differences of war experience and at the same time more focused on an exclusively British experience, than it had been, given the presence of so many foreigners in Britain and the impact of the Allies during the Second World War. Looking at many of its today’s variations and use, it seems to have been re-interpreted as communicating self-reliance, a certain dauntlessness or even insouciance, ranging from self-care to blissful ignorance (also a frequent slogan on the Keep Calm posters). Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the “Keep Calm” iconography has seen a new renaissance in times of Covid-19 and Brexit. It will be interesting to see its future interpretations.
Sources: Bex Lewis, Keep Calm and Carry on – The Truth Behind the Poster. Imperial War Museum: London 2017.
Video: The truth behind “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Interview with Imperial War Museum art Curator Claire Brenard