‘Keep Calm and Carry On’: The Story of the Iconic World War II Poster

In an old Victorian railway station in the picturesque village of Alnwick, Northumberland, just South of the Scottish border, is a one-of-a-kind bookstore called Barter Books. The New Statesman called it “The British Library of secondhand books.” A model railway winds along a track laid out across row upon row of bookshelves in what was once the departure hall. During the winter months, customers sit and read by a roaring fire in the old waiting room.

One day in 2000, the store’s co-owner, Stuart Manley, was searching through a dusty box of books that were bought at auction, when he found a folded-up piece of paper at the bottom. He took the paper out, opened it and showed it to his wife and business partner, Mary Manley. Neither of them had seen it before. It said: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” As the BBC’s Stuart Hughes later put it, “the simple five-word message is the very model of British restraint and stiff upper lip.”

It turned out that the poster was one of millions that were printed on the eve of World War II but never distributed. The Manleys decided to frame the poster and hang it in the shop. Before long, customers were offering to buy it, so the Manleys decided to print some copies. Then in 2005 a national newspaper supplement recommended the poster as a Christmas gift and, as Stuart Manley put it, “all hell broke loose.”

Since that time, tens of thousands of the posters have been sold, and the slogan has found its way onto t-shirts and coffee mugs and has been the inspiration of countless parodies like “Keep Calm and Party On” and “Freak Out and Run Like Hell.” Removed from its original context, the wartime slogan has an uncanny resonance in today’s world. “It’s very good, almost zen,” psychologist Lesley Prince told the BBC. “It works as a personal mantra now.”

For the story of this most improbable of 21st century icons, watch the three-minute film above, which was made by Temujin Doran in collaboration with the design and production studio Nation.

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