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The Poster That Started the “Keep Calm” Craze is on Sale

Learn about the print that launched a thousand memes

(The Keep Calm-o-Matic)
smithsonian.com

There are thousands of t-shirts, mugs, and memes of the now-iconic red-and-white “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, and even more parodies of the phrase: “Keep Calm and Kill Zombies,” “Keep Calm and Eat Bacon,” “Keep Calm and Buy Shoes,” to name a few.

But it turns out the original poster itself, printed by the U.K.’s Ministry of Information in 1939, is incredibly rare. One of the posters is going on sale at the Manning Fine Arts stand at the Art & Antiques Fair, Olympia, in London, this week, Vanessa Thorpe reports at The Guardian. The price tag is £21,250 or about $28,700.

The poster on sale is the one that started the "Keep Calm" craze. According to a short film about the poster, it didn’t reach the public eye until 2000, when Stuart and Mary Manley, owners of Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, found it at the bottom of a box of used books they bought at auction. They framed the poster and hung it in their shop, and soon it was so popular that the Manleys began selling copies. Over the decade, the image gained notoriety, and eventually became one of the most recognizable memes of the 21st century.

Thorpe reports that the poster was originally commissioned as one of a series of three propaganda posters designed by the British government in 1939. All of them use a distinctive sans serif typeface that may have been drawn by hand on a solid color background, topped by a crown.

The other two posters read “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom Is in Peril. Defend It With All Your Might.” These two posters were distributed widely when the U.K. and Germany officially went to war in September, 1939, showing up in railway stations and shop windows.

"Keep Calm" met a different fate. According to a post on the official UK Government website by Dr. Henry Irving, the poster was a more refined version of the original suggestion, “Keep Calm, Don’t Panic.” The government printed 2.5 million "Keep Calm" posters, expecting mass panic when the German bombing campaign began. But when the explosions started, the public was prepared for the attacks.

The government had second thoughts about the phrase too. Irving writes the Treasury feared "the population might well resent having this poster crammed down their throats at every turn." Another government minister worried that the poster was "too commonplace to be inspiring" and that "it may even annoy people that we should seem to doubt the steadiness of their nerves."

The millions of "Keep Calm" posters were pulped after 1940 because of a wartime paper shortage. Only the Manleys' copy and one other were known to exist until 2012, when Antiques Roadshow uncovered a batch of 20, Thorpe says.

So why has the poster become so iconic, despite playing almost no role in the war?

As Owen Hatherley, author of The Ministry of Nostalgia, speculates for The Guardian, the phrase is an example of “austerity nostalgia." He points out that the poster was mass produced in 2008, during the credit crisis, gaining popularity through Britain’s austerity measures and was picked up in the United States during the Great Recession. Now, with UK's decision to Brexit, as the poster goes up for auction, the phrase likely has taken on a new relevance again across the pond.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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