‘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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