We’ve all seen the Keep Calm and Carry on poster that was issued by the Ministry of Information, but how many of us know the history behind it? Alison looks back at the history of this now iconic design.....
When Boris Johnson declared on the 23rd March 2020 that we were to stay indoors and only go out for necessity and exercise, it was the first time since the Second World War that our lives would be so heavily impacted. This of course draws comparisons, but in context, being told to stay at home is hardly comparable to the bombing raids, rationing, black-outs and and news censorship that was WW2. We have access to huge amounts of information and news, with instant alerts on our telephones, we are told exactly what is happening, almost as it is happening. In the main we can trust this news. During WW2, newspapers and the wireless were the only sources of information and these would have been censored by the Ministry of Information.
The MOI was formed on the 4th September 1939, the day after Britain’s declaration of war and the first minister was sworn into office on 5thSeptember. The Ministry’s function was ‘to promote the national case to the public at home and abroad in time of war’ by issuing ‘National Propaganda’ and controlling news and information.
One of the first tasks undertaken by the MOI was a poster campaign, the aim being “to win the nations hearts”. The message that these posters carried are still relevant.
The first posters produced were actually designed in the summer of 1939 – known as the Home Publicity series, it comprised three designs – ‘Your Courage …’, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and ‘Freedom Is In Peril, Defend It With All Your Might’. It is estimated that over 2.5 million posters were printed and distributed. Ironically, as popular as it has become in recent years, the Keep Calm and Carry On poster was never sanctioned for public display as it was kept back only to be used after serious bombing raids.
These posters, with their bright red grounds and bright white lettering were a stark contrast to the looming black-out. They were designed to boast morale, they were quick and easy to read but most importantly, they were designed to evoke the Victorian belief of our stiff upper lip and encourage resilience!
The Your Courage and the Freedom Is In Peril posters would have been seen everywhere - in shop, bank and newsagents’ windows, at the railway station (with smaller versions in train carriages) and on buses and trolley buses. Every man and woman would play their part in fighting this war. It was important to drive the message home - it was expected that there would be gas attacks and bombing raids within hours of war being declared.
Interestingly these early posters were not considered a great success - it is believed people considered them patronising and most didn’t really understand what they meant, or what they were being asked to do. In April 1940, the unused posters, including all the printed Keep Calm posters were collected and pulped.
The Keep Calm and Carry On poster was rediscovered in 2001 in a Northumberland book shop, found in a box of books destined for auction – for sixty two years, this now iconic poster had lain completely forgotten about. At the time, it was the only known example to have survived. In 2012, all that changed when at an Antiques Roadshow held at St Andrews University, a lady brought along fifteen posters that she had inherited from her father, who served with the Royal Observer Corps. These all were likely erroneously put away in 1939.
At auction, records show six have come up for sale – ranging in price from £6,250 to £18,750. Two smaller examples, likely for use on railway carriages have sold, both for £2,500. Your Courage and Freedom Is In Peril posters come onto the market with slightly more frequency, the value at auction is very heavily dependent on condition with more modest princes being achieved, ranging from £65 to £400.
Might you have one this these rare posters stashed away in your attic? We'd love to hear from you if you have. Email us at email@example.com
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Posted on 10 April 2020