“Keep Calm and Carry On”–suddenly, the slogan, printed on a colored background and topped with a royal crown, has cropped up everywhere, emblazoned on everything from totes and T-shirts to coffee mugs and throw pillows. Where did this bloody thing come from, and why has it become the meme of the moment?
As one might expect, the sentiment–a steely resolve to remain unflustered–is thoroughly British. But it was coined more than 70 years ago, as one of three propaganda posters produced by the British government in the run-up to World War II. The posters were printed using a “special and handsome” typeface, which would be difficult for Germany to counterfeit, and featured the crown of King George VI. The other two were distributed, but “Keep Calm” was placed on reserve, for use only in times of crisis, and actually never saw the light of day. That is, until one of the 2.5 million posters turned up more than 50 years later in a box of used books at a lovely secondhand bookstore called Barter Books in the northeast town of Alnwick.
The proprietors of the shop did their bit to disseminate copies of the poster, which has since been recycled to oblivion. So a poster that wasn’t even rolled out for the Blitz is now the new “grin and bear it.”