Keep calm and read this column

By Joy Carrico | Published Wednesday, April 20, 2016

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Do you remember the first time you saw the poster, or T-shirt, or image on the internet of a crown topping the message, written in white letters on a solid red background: “Keep Calm and Carry On?” It’s been around as a popular item for a while now.

But it has changed. People have taken the design and used it to say all kinds of things. They tend to retain the “keep calm” and then insert something else as the second phrase.

Joy Carrico

Joy Carrico

The first one I remember is “Keep Calm and Chive On,” which made no sense to me. While writing this I looked it up and it turns out that The Chive is a website and “chiving on” is a reference to people who follow that website. Who knew? For years I have been under the impression that there was a weird segment of the population that really liked those green non-onion things servers insist on giving me with baked potatoes.

I have seen hundreds of varieties of this message. Including:

  • Keep calm and just dance
  • Keep calm and avoid zombies
  • Keep calm and never stop dreaming
  • Keep calm and fake a British accent
  • Keep calm and stop making lists (I made that one up)

You get the idea. There are websites devoted to creating “keep calm and” messages, should you wish to make one of your own.

I was told in a graphic design seminar recently that we were all officially permanently forbidden from ever again using this design for any reason. I think we’re all getting tired of the “keep calm and” motif.

Where did all this “keep calm and” hysteria begin?

This design and its message is so quintessentially British that when I first saw it, I assumed it was a well-recognized relic from World War II. I imagined it up all over Britain during the bombings, calling the citizens to keep a stiff upper lip and be very British about being bombarded.

Well, it’s a piece of WWII British propaganda, designed in 1939 by the Ministry of Information. It was meant to bolster the populace during wartime, but it was never really put into use.

The British government saw that war with Germany was inevitable and started creating these posters before war was actually declared. They were preparing for a large-scale war and wanted these posters in place all over the country so that they could be plastered up at once, seemingly appearing everywhere overnight.

They didn’t need them right away. From the British perspective, for the first eight months of the war, nothing much happened.

England declared war on Germany in September 1939, upon Germany’s invasion of Poland. But Germany didn’t turn its attention full force to the Western Front until well into 1940. Hitler was far too busy dividing and destroying Poland.

Additionally, the Ministry of Information was suffering organizational issues and was in turmoil until 1941. Some market research done at the time also seems to have indicated that people didn’t much like the poster. So it became a casualty of war and was scrapped. Most of them were eventually destroyed to salvage paper. If you want to learn much more about this topic, I suggest visiting Dr. Rebecca Lewis’s website at: drbexl.co.uk. She knows all.

The people of Great Britain were never actually told to keep calm and carry on during WWII. A few posters may have made their way to public view, but the original poster was never as ubiquitous as it is now in its many manifestations.

So why is this unused propaganda now such a fixture of our world, telling us to keep calm and do any number of other things?

The answer seems to be that in 2000, a store in England bought a box of books at auction and at the bottom of that box was one of these posters. They loved the poster and hung it up. It caught on and they started selling replicas. And so it began.

Why people started changing the message I cannot say. It seems to me that what has happened to the design has robbed it of its original sober-mindedness, but that cannot be changed at this point. The current usage is now a part of the weird history of the design.

It was never used for its original purpose, and now it is used without regard to purpose. I do not know what to make of that, but I will do as instructed and keep calm and carry on.

Joy Carrico is a graphic artist for the Messenger.

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