Origins: Keep Calm and Carry On

The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters exploded in popularity just about everywhere a couple of years ago. Posters, cushions, cups, endless decor was all available with the message. With the onslaught of merchandise came the modified versions of the slogan, including this ‘swag’ abomination.

keep calm swag

What I didn’t realise initially was that the original, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, has a deep and important history behind it, one that was eventually discovered entirely by chance.

It was late 1939 and war had broken. The British Government formed the Ministry of Information (MOI), to be responsible for information and propaganda during the war. They were tasked with creating morale boosting posters to be distributed.

It sounds like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, and the original posters even look like something Orwellian, but in a much cheerier way, I suppose. Two posters were designed by the MOI, featuring the crown of King George VI and a simple but eye-catching font. These were distributed on public transport, shop windows and noticeboards throughout Britain.
article-2105518-11E1B9A2000005DC-994_306x423 The first of the posters reads: ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will Bring Us Victory’.

Original copies of this, and the second poster, were found in the possession of someone who hadn’t had a chance to put them up before the threat of invasion from Germany had waned.

He now probably holds the world’s only stock of the original posters, which measure 45”x32”.


article-2105518-11E1B936000005DC-525_306x423 The artwork on all posters expired after 50 years, meaning that the artwork is now in the public domain, which partly explains the enormous amount of merchandise we see today.

The second poster released during the war reads: ‘Freedom is in Peril Defend it with all your might’.

These were the only original posters displayed publicly during the war.

The third, and arguably most famous poster created, is the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ version. This was never seen during the war as it was specifically designed for use only upon the German invasion of Britain. As the invasion never took place, the third poster was never officially released.

At the end of the war in 1945, it’s believed most of the ‘Keep Calm’ posters were destroyed. It wasn’t until 60 years later that an employee of Barter Books found a copy hidden amongst a collection of books that had been bought at an auction.


Almost lost to history, little is known about the original poster or its creator. However, the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum in London have a small number of copies, as well as the small number held that were not pinned up prior to the war ending.

Much more than a marketing gimmick, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ sums up the British during the war. It’s a life motto and I cringe a little when I see the tacky revisions (I’m looking at you, Keep Calm and Starbucks…).