August 18, 2013
Keep Calm, But Enough Already!
Chances are you’ve seen someone wearing a t-shirt that plays on the slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On,” with such obnoxious alternations as “Keep Calm and Drink Beer.” Clever these aren’t.
The question is, where did these come from? The retro looking imaging actually dates back to World War II, so why didn’t we see this slogan pop up on a Beatles album cover such as Sgt. Pepper’s, or again in the days of the “mods” – hipsters before there were actual hipsters?
The reason is that this was an example of seemingly “lost history.”
The poster was devised by the British Government’s Ministry of Information in the spring of 1939 when it was clear that the nation would likely find itself at war with Germany. On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out.
The posters were actually distributed throughout the country prior to the war when it was feared there might be gas attacks, heavy bombing raids and even invasion, and the posters were devised as a way to offer reassurance. In the end, the heavy bombing raids did occur, but the gas attacks and invasion thankfully didn’t happen.
In August, 1939, three different designs went into production, including the iconic red and white image that carried the slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Some 2.5 million of these posters were printed, but yet these apparently escaped the public consciousness.
So, why did these posters disappear from our memory? Well, for one it was rather plain and thus lacked the iconic imagery of other posters of the era. But, more importantly, it wasn’t actually issued!
For the record, two other designs were produced including one that read “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will Bring Us Victory,” while the other noted, “Freedom is in Peril.” Some million of the former and 600,000 of the latter were produced – but both lack the zing of Keep Calm.
The first two were distributed and do show up in some period photos, along with many other posters. But apparently the Keep Calm posters were held in reserve, possibly intended for times of a serious crisis. These were all but lost to the ages.
Then a copy showed up more than 50 years after the war end in box of dusty old books that was bought at auction by Barter Books. Around 2001, the book shop owners hung it on the wall and it proved so popular that soon copies were sold. It was further copied and parodied and became an iconic image of the 21st century.
Some 20 original posters were also uncovered in 2012 and displayed on the U.K. version of the TV show Antiques Roadshow. These are believed to be the only surviving examples and, given the bombing that the nation faced, it isn’t hard to believe that a lot did go up in smoke.
While the reprints — with the real slogan or a parody — sell for around $20, those originals are worth thousands of pounds each. They should be worth more because of the rarity, but sadly the copies and the parodies have made these so iconic now that these are the uniqueness is gone.
That is what truly is lost to the ages. If these had survived, had been on album covers and t-shirts since the war then, the surviving originals might be worth tens of thousands of dollars, maybe more. Because these would have been iconic since the war, not some rediscovered lost image.
That might sound ironic and even cynical to suggest, but the fact that these are suddenly a new fad actually diminishes the significance of that 2012 find. What makes it worse are those parodies, especially because they lack the cleverness, the zing and even the very British stiff upper lip of 1939.
However, as much as I hate the parodies and even hate that it has reached pop culture status, next time I see one I’ll take the advice of the original. I’ll keep calm and carry on.