October 11, 2011

The famous British wartime poster that was never used

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 14:33

There’s a fascinating story posted at The Awl discussing the trademark battle over the famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster from the British Ministry of Information during World War 2. The most interesting part of the article, in my opinion, is that the poster was never used during the war:

The Keep Calm and Carry On poster was designed and produced by the British government in 1939 in advance of the war, but it was never displayed in a single English tube station or tobacconists or newsagents. Not one ordinary citizen ever saw it in the street before or during the war.

Of the 2.5 million posters originally printed, only a handful survived the war; all the rest were pulped. Exactly two copies are known to have made it into private hands. One of these is owned by Wartime Posters of Warrington, Cheshire. The other is Stuart Manley’s.

A very few more are held in government museums, such as the Imperial War Museum, whose website observes, “And remember the most important wartime tip of all: Keep Calm and Carry On.” Haha, not even! Hardly anyone had ever seen that thing before 2001!!

[. . .]

Early in 1939, it was clear that war was all but inevitable. The precursor organization to the Ministry of Information swung quietly into gear at that time, and began work on five million posters to plaster all over the place and improve citizen morale. Not everybody was on board with crafting public messaging before it was clear how things were going to shake out, but the dissenters were overruled and the project went forward.

But the war didn’t begin the way they expected. The period from late 1939 to early May of 1940 was known as the Phoney War because the Germans had invaded Poland with such a lot of Blitzkrieg that everyone in Britain and France expected pretty much the same thing for themselves. But that did not happen, and wags took to calling this period the Sitzkrieg and so on, and that went on until the Germans marched into France and the Low Countries. It took until autumn of 1940 for the London Blitz to begin.

Meanwhile, Sitzkrieg or no, the MoI was lumbering onward. The first two posters produced in 1939 were: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom is in Peril: Defend It With All Your Might.” Two and a half million of the third were printed. They read, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and these last were held back in anticipation of the rain of bombs that was expected the moment war broke out. They were meant for a crisis that didn’t in the event occur. For that and a few other reasons, the British public never saw them.

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