The instruction to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has become one of the most recognisable slogans in British history. The phrase has reinforced a popular view of life in the Second World War and has been reproduced on everything from champagne flutes to smartphone cases. Yet its popularity also obscures a more complicated history.
This blog post marks the 75th anniversary of this significant cultural artefact by exploring its place in the British government’s preparations for the Second World War and drawing attention to the Treasury compromise which led to the poster’s creation.
Preparing ‘Home Publicity’
‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was coined by the shadow Ministry of Information (MOI) at some point between 27 June and 6 July 1939. It was produced as part of a series of three posters that would be issued in the event of war (the others read ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution; Will Bring Us Victory’ and ‘Freedom is in Peril; Defend it with all Your Might’). The ‘Keep Calm’ design was never officially issued and only a very small number of originals have survived to the present day.
The MOI’s planners had first considered ‘Home Publicity’ in August 1937 and returned to the subject in July 1938. However their efforts were constrained by an earlier agreement that these activities would not begin until later into any future war (with the MOI to initially focus wholly on the issue of official news and censorship). It was only after the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) was asked to produce a secret report on foreign propaganda policy in March 1939 that this assumption was challenged and thoughts turned to the necessary content of such material.
A new Home Publicity committee duly began work on 6 April 1939 with lunchtime meetings between civil servants and volunteer academics, publicists and publishers taking place on a weekly basis. The members quickly agreed that the MOI should undertake a general campaign to present ‘the national cause’ immediately upon the outbreak of war. They paid particular attention to proposals for a series of posters that would reassure the public by stressing the certainty of ultimate victory and emphasising that the whole community was committed to the war effort.
It was decided that the posters must ‘stand out strikingly’ from commercial efforts and stressed that they should be regarded as part of a coherent campaign. It was for this reason that the planners began to experiment with the use of a ‘special and handsome type’. Of course this left questions about the message. The team were instructed that this would need to attract attention, complement preconceived ideas about the conflict, be universal in appeal and balance a ‘steadying influence’ with an incitement to ‘spontaneous’ action. It was clear from the outset that this would be a difficult task, with initial proposals for a slogan reading ‘England is prepared’ abandoned in favour of the less politicised claim that ‘We’re going to see it through’.
Stalled Plans for Production and Distribution
The design process accelerated in May 1939 as funding was transferred from the secret service to the Treasury and a small ‘Publicity Planning’ subcommittee comprising of William Surrey Dane (the managing director of Odhams press), Gervas Huxley (the former head of publicity for the Empire Marketing Board) and later W.G.V. Vaughan (an advertising agent who was appointed provisional Head of Production) was formed. They eventually decided that the slogan should invoke a ‘state of mind’ and commissioned a graphic artist to draw up a series of roughs.
The Publicity Planning subcommittee were also responsible for the later stages of production and distribution. It was quickly agreed that HM Stationery Office should be placed in charge of printing and a programme for distribution was prepared alongside a budget for preliminary printing. Surrey Dane and Huxley also proposed a contract with the advertising agency S.H. Benson Ltd so that display would extend to cover commercial as well as voluntary sites (they argued this was the only way to ensure nationwide coverage). It was anticipated that the whole campaign would cost £112,000 to deliver.
Although these figures were tentatively agreed by the MOI’s planners, the Treasury were unimpressed by plans to produce seven separate designs of poster, and unwilling to risk sanctioning expenditure on any design that was too specific. The existing designs were scrapped when Surrey Dane and Huxley’s programme was blocked during a specially convened meeting on 26 June 1939. This led A.P. Waterfield, the civil servant responsible for planning the MOI, to hastily convene a meeting between members of the Home Publicity section and the controller of HMSO in a bid to find a compromise. It was reluctantly agreed that a revised application should be made for £45,000 to cover 2.5 million copies of a single design that could be ‘revised as to allow for variant forms’.
A Textual Compromise
‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ would emerge from these and subsequent discussions. The exact point at which the slogan was coined is not recorded in the archives. However it is clear that a revised brief was sent to Wall-Cousins, the graphic artist chosen for his versatility, on 27 June 1939, and that a selection of new designs were ready on 6 July with ‘Keep Calm’ amongst twenty put forward for further consideration.
It is similarly clear that the design owed much to the inter-departmental wrangling around the budget. Indeed the experiment with a wholly textual poster was a direct response to the Treasury veto and Waterfield’s proposal for a flexible design whilst the slogan was influenced by Huxley’s belief in ‘sober restraint’ and an earlier suggestion – ‘Keep Calm. Don’t Panic’ – made by Surrey Dane. The stylised crown was borrowed from ill-fated plans for a ‘Royal Message’ that was to be sent by direct mail. And the colours were chosen in the belief that the combination of red and white produced a psychological reaction (which was in turn borrowed from Hitler’s Mein Kampf).
It would take a further four meetings for the twenty designs to be whittled down to a shortlist of five. These were presented to the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, on 4 August 1939 and it was he who finally decided on ‘Keep Calm’, ‘Your Courage’ and ‘Freedom is in Peril’. On 23 August 1939, exactly two weeks after the final designs had been submitted to HMSO, Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR, and the decision was taken to print. Treasury approval for 3.75 million posters was granted the following day, although final contracts were only signed on Thursday 31 August, and production was still underway when war was declared on Monday 3 September.
An Uneasy Tone
It is often claimed that a decision to keep the poster ‘in reserve’ had been taken before the war. In fact, whilst it was agreed to wait until severe bombing began, this idea had only emerged after the aerial apocalypse failed to materialise, by which point 2.45million copies of the poster had already been passed to local distribution centres. Indeed it had been decided that ‘Keep Calm’ should account for 65 per cent of the first print run on 23 August. It was only when initial reports on civilian morale pointed to boredom rather than dislocation, that a newly appointed director of Home Publicity decided to ‘go slow’ and asked for funds to be transferred to produce an additional 750,000 copies of ‘Your Courage’ and ‘Freedom is in Peril’.
This decision can be partly attributed to changes in staff and responsibility as the MOI moved out of the shadows and into the glare of public attention. However it was also likely to have been influenced by an unease that had surrounded the slogan since its inception. The individual responsible for sanctioning expenditure at the Treasury had, for instance, expressed real fear that ‘the population might well resent having this poster crammed down their throats at every turn’ whilst Waterfield maintained that the slogan was ‘too commonplace to be inspiring’ and feared that ‘it may even annoy people that we should seem to doubt the steadiness of their nerves’.
It is worth noting that the ‘Your Courage’ design was subject to just such criticism (while ‘Freedom is in Peril’ was decried for being too abstract). Accused of failing to understand publicity during a hostile parliamentary debate, and attacked in the press for an inept ‘Waste and Paste’, the MOI scrapped the entire commercial campaign after just four weeks. Stocks of ‘Keep Calm’ were retained until April 1940 but began to be pulped after this point as part of a cross-government effort to overcome a serious paper shortage.
The fact that a design which is now seen to symbolise an era caused so much unease amongst contemporaries remains something of an irony. Yet it was this very unease that ensured the poster would remain hidden from public view until one dusty copy was re-discovered by two booksellers in Alnwick at the turn of the twenty-first century. The rest, as they say, is history.
You can find out more about the history of the Ministry of Information at http://www.moidigital.ac.uk
John D. Cantwell, Images of War: British Posters 1939-45 (London: HMSO, 1989)
Ian McLaine, Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War II (London: Allen & Unwin, 1979)
Richard Slocombe, British Posters of the Second World War (London: IWM, 2012)
Marion Yass, This is Your War: Home Front Propaganda in the Second World War (London: HMSO, 1983)
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