Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster

Dr. Bex Lewis.

In 2001 Stuart Manley of Barter Books in Northumberland discovered a poster in the bottom of a box of auction books, liked it, and decided to frame it and display it in the shop. This poster was a bright pillar-box red, headed with a crown, and with the words ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ in a bold typeface! You may be familiar with it, as it, and it’s variations, appears in every tourist shop, and has appeared in the headlines at every time of crisis since the 2009 economic crisis when the slogan went global!

Keep Calm and Carry On poster

Many, however, don’t know the true story behind this poster, and I’ve been seeking to rectify that in my new book Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017). I first mentioned the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster in my undergraduate dissertation in 1997, and again in my PhD thesis in 2004, really as a footnote in discussions about two other posters that were designed for the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory’ (23% of the 3.6 million print run), and ‘Freedom is in peril; defend it with all your might (12%). The posters, developed by civil servants, designed by Ernest Wallcousins, and signed off by Sir Samuel Hoare (Home Secretary) were still rolling off the printing presses as war was declared.

Freedom is in Peril poster

‘Keep calm and carry on’, remained unknown for decades, because the other ‘red posters’, attracted a lot of negative attention, especially from the press, fearful of potential censorship from the Ministry of Information (the issuing body). ‘Keep Calm’, was described as the ‘main poster’ (65%) in the series, but it was to be reserved ‘for the crash of the first air bombardment’. It was distributed regionally in November 1939, but no instructions to display were ever given. By the time that the Blitz arrived in 1940, the notion of ‘The People’s War’ was popular, and it was clear that people wanted to be told what to do, rather than needed to be told to keep their chins up. This kind of message was likely considered inappropriate for use.  With wartime paper shortages, it is likely that the posters would have been pulped, but with its wide distribution, it is not surprising that the odd ‘Keep calm’ poster occasionally resurfaces.

The phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is seen to emulate a particular type of Britishness. It demonstrates a certain amount of nostalgia for a time when we all ‘pulled together’, ‘had a cup of tea’ and ‘got on with it’, although its global appeal demonstrates that it both epitomises Britishness and transcends it, and looks set to remain a part of the cultural landscape for the foreseeable future.

Parodies of Keep Calm & Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster is published by IWM on 26 October and can be pre-ordered here:

Carry on London ! original Second World War poster

Bex Lewis has a background as a cultural communications historian and digital practitioner, with a PhD in Second World War posters, in which she wrote the history of Keep Calm and Carry On. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and a Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University. She is a frequent speaker, writer and facilitator, and is author of the popular Raising Children in a Digital Age (2014).

Comments on post  (0)

Leave a comment