An instantly-recognisable brand today, this poster was reserved for use in the event of the German invasion. Once it became obvious that they were not going to invade, these posters were sent back for recycling. As they were never used, the survivors are incredibly rare. Even the Imperial War Museum – which has a very extensive collection of wartime posters – does not have a copy of this.
The story of the poster is well known these days, but bears repeating. In 1939, with invasion an ever-present threat, HM Government commissioned three posters with snippets designed to encourage the population. Bearing a crown at the top, it was clearly intended to be a message from the King: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory” was displayed widely, with hundreds of thousands being printed; similarly “Freedom is in Peril Defend it with all Your Might.” The third poster – “Keep Calm and Carry On” – was distributed, but was to be held back and only used in the event of invasion.
In the event the poster campaign was not a great success, with the people regarding it as an instruction from the powers-that-be that it was the people, not the leaders, who were going to be the ones doing the hard work. As the invasion never happened, Hitler’s armies being otherwise occupied elsewhere in the world, and the Spitfire achieving victory in the Battle of Britain, the Keep Calm posters were never used. Owing to the shortage of raw materials, the paper was recycled and there the story should have ended.
However, in 2000, the owner of Barter Books in Alnwick discovered a copy of the poster in the bottom of a box of books. They hung it up in their shop and started producing reproductions, and the poster has become an internationally recognised image, reproduced on mugs, t-shirts, and adapted into such uplifting slogans as “Keep Calm and Drink Tea”.
A much more successful series of propaganda was created by ‘Fougasse’ – Cyril Bird. Picture editor of Punch from 1937-1949, then editor until 1953, he noted that the best sort of advertising would make people smile. He worked unpaid for the Ministry of Information during the war, producing cartoons with a short word of advise. His Careless Talk Costs Lives series of posters are amongst the most famous of the propaganda campaigns of the Second World War.