Friday, 9 March 2012


Shhhh - gather round and listen carefully This is the tale of a magical bookshop, Barter Books,  and how what they discovered which had lain forgotten for many years became known the world over. And has now taken on folkloric status beyond what anyone could ever have imagined.

There is deep magic in words and design. Sometimes words are so powerful that they transcend time and cultures and touch those who do not even really understand their meaning or how they came to be created. The power of the poster 'Keep Calm and Carry On' is astounding.

Especially for something which had lain quietly for many years before being discovered in a dusty box in an old bookshop in what had once been a railway station.

In 1939 Europe was on the brink of war with Germany. Still devastated by the Great War,  England’s heart was understandably not in another war. The Temporary Ministry of Information (the department responsible for publicity and propaganda during the Second World War), commissioned three poster designs meant to be distributed in public places to strengthen morale in the event of a war being declared.  In September they issued two posters, 'Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might' (400,000 printed) and 'Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory' (800,000 printed. The first two designs were posted on public transport, in shop windows, upon notice boards and hoardings across Britian.

The 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters were stored in case of an enemy attack on Great Britain. Although a few of the posters did make it onto walls, most were never issued and were destroyed at the end of the war in 1945, or lost in time, with the exception of a few that were found in 2009 that are in storage at the Imperial War Museum, 1 that resides in a British book shop and recently a woman brought about 30 to the Antiques Road Show.

The designer of this iconic poster remains unknown.

Almost 60 years later, in 2000, Stuart Manley, owner of the secondhand Barter Books in Alnwick found the poster folded at the bottom of a box of old books they purchased at an auction. When they framed it and displayed it in their shop the customers always commented on it. This inspired them to print and offer copies for sale in the shop. Stuart's wife Mary says that by March 2009, they had sold over 40,000 copies.

There is something about this poster which resonates with so many people. It is simple, and humble, yet strong and defiant. The little crown of King George VI at the top is it's only adornment. It is a symbol of the United Kingdom, but somehow it seems to signify a higher Kingdom too. They say being copied is the sincerest form of flattery, and this design has been re-created thousands of times with different wording and colours. Nothing comes close to the original.

Perhaps it's secret lies in the dark times in which it was created, often from darkness a light shines. It has grace. It is a small prayer, from the heart, like a candle to those whose lives were shattered by a terrible war.

It has a magical story, it's unknown designer, not being issued, how it never touched any of the lives so much in need of it. And yet what it says is actually how the people reacted to the time of darkness, and even,  how the war was won. It somehow managed to heed it's own slogan and refused to be forgotten. It surfaced in exactly the right time, when it was once again needed, and it reached our hearts immediately.

We live with war, some of us much closer to it than others, but it is always there in our world. These times we live in are harder than we have encountered for many years. Not as hard as during the war years and not as hard as for other nations. But still, hard enough to need some encouragement to carry on and not complain.

Like many war veterans my Father never talked about the battlefields. Only once did he tell me that his best friend in the conflict died in his arms, killed by an explosion which sent sharpel through his young body and blinded my Father in one eye. I know that those who died and those who served in the war would be pleased to know that this poster, created to boost the spirits of those in those dark times now hangs on thousands of walls throughout Britain and the United States - and further afield.

I hope that this story, of the real poster not the thousands of slogan copies, continues to be remembered and told. Please pass this tale on and remember the true meaning.

The simple things in life are often the most profound. I think this is one of them.

Some of the copies which seem to keep the spirit of the original.

I want to leave the last words here to Mary Manley, co-owner of Barter Books whose husband Stuart brought the poster back to life and into our homes and our hearts.

If you are going to buy a copy please do it from BARTER BOOKS rather than one of the large commercial companies whose greed seems to tarnish the original simple concept. 

"What I love, right along with everyone else, is how that poster, itself, would be, against all odds, a survivor of the war. How that little crown represents, still, a dignity that we seem to have lost, have we? How its message – so simple, so clean, so without spin – has turned out to have meaning not just for a single people in time of trouble but for all of us wherever we live, whatever our troubles".

Mary Manley

Review of the  Barter Books shop

This is a great review of Barter Books by a book lover who visited. I've never been there, but it is definitely on the list!

The youtube video

A short film that tells the story behind the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster. Its origins at the beginning of WWII and its rediscovery in a bookshop in England in 2000, becoming one of the iconic images of the 21st century. Film, music, script and narration by Temujin Doran.

General Footnote from :       Part of a series on Propaganda Parodies.

In 1997, Dr. Rebecca Lewis published the first part of her research on WWII posters, including this series. Both of her undergraduate dissertation from 1997 and her Ph.D. thesis from 2004 are available on World War II Posters website. Dr. Lewis has been also keeping track of “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentions on her blog since April 2009.

The website was registered in February 2007, which sells a variety of related merchandises featuring the slogan from T-shirts and bags to deck chairs and chocolate bars.

In early 2009, the poster saw its biggest resurgence following the spread of a global economic crisis; The Guardian and The Independent both published articles about the popularity of the poster.

In July 2009, New York Times Magazine published an article on the commodity factor of the poster, focusing on the popularity of derivatives of the original slogan as well.

In November 2008, T-shirt company Threadless published a spoof design with an upside-down crown and the slogan “Now Panic and Freak Out.” In April 2009, the Keep Calm-o-matic  image generator was created, allowing users to make their own posters as well as hosting a gallery of images made with the site.


  1. My favourite local bookshop, I could browse for hours, and I usually do! They sell very yummy biscuits too! :D It's a shame there aren't more bookshops that operate on a barter system, it works so well!

    1. Gosh! That is wonderful that it is your local, I'd love to visit them. (The biscuits sound nice) I agree, a barter system for books sounds a great idea.

  2. A very interesting and informative post, thank you.
    Hope you have a lovely weekend,
    Essie x

  3. what an interesting post....and good luck to the ones who found the original is amazing how just a few words can inspire so...
    also thanks for coming over to see us in blogland!!! x

  4. I had just uncovered a nice comment from you which Blogger put in a spam folder. Good thing I checked! It seems you followed me there from my Etsy shop. Thank you :)

    This is really an informative post regarding the sign. I love that you shared it! All I see are so many Etsy knock-offs. It's nice to have the actual history behind it. Thank you!

    And I adore your black kitty!

    1. Thank you so much Lolo, I'm glad you enjoyed it. (and Mrs Black!) I just love your work, you are so talented, I will be back to your Etsy shop when I have saved some pennies! x

  5. Dear Minerva, I just found you, luckily through Martin and the Magpie. I have been sitting here enraptured by your lovely writing for a bit now....I shall be coming to visit regularly I think! Your blog or should I say journal is delightful. And I adore your blog header, chic and classy! Thank you, N .xo

    1. Thank you Nella, so kind. How nice that we both follow Martin & The Magpie, it's my local florist and gorgeous it is. I'm going to get a cup of tea and read through your blog, it looks wonderful. ; ~ )

  6. Fantastic piece you've written! I hadn't connected that that is King George VI's crown. And I love seeing the photo of the bookstore owners. I have seen the original at the Imperial War Museum, but didn't know how rare they were at the time. The spirit of England during WWII was so unique, so strong - it amazes me.

    1. Thank you for your comment, I wanted to write the post to share some of the history with everyone.

  7. This was very interesting to read, Minerva.
    I agree that the simple, dignified message is powerful. I feel it's quite sad, that the posters were not displayed, at the time they may have helped.
    My son, purchased a mug, and note book with this, a couple of years ago, and that was the first I'd come across it. Since then I have found myself, recalling the simple phrase when needed.I wish somehow the person who created this poster could know the good, he or she did.
    Somehow, the movie, The King's Speech, seems connected with this in my mind.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...