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The story behind ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’

The poster's fascinating history began at Senate House where it was issued through the Ministry of Defense during the Second World War.

Senate House was the Ministry of Information's headquarters in London during World War II

It’s hard to believe that a wartime slogan from 1939, which was never seen by the public, has re-emerged 75 years later and is being used to sell everything from mugs to flight bags and baby clothes.

Where did it come from?

‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was one of three key messages created by Britain’s wartime propaganda department, the Ministry of Information, made famous as the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel, 1984.

The now-ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phrase was chosen for its clear message of ‘sober restraint’ and was coined by the shadow Ministry of Information at some point between 27 June and 6 July 1939.

It was one of a series of three posters that would be issued in the event of war (the others read ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution; Will Bring Us Victory’ and ‘Freedom is in Peril; Defend it with all Your Might’). The ‘Keep Calm’ design was never officially issued and only a very small number of originals have survived to the present day.

2.45 million posters displaying it were printed, only to be pulped and recycled in 1940 to help the British government deal with a serious paper shortage.

It wasn’t until a copy was discovered in a bookshop in Northumberland in 2000, and reproductions of it began to be sold a year later, that its fame was established.

The Ministry of Information

Relatively little was known about the Ministry of Information, which was located in the University of London’s headquarters at Senate House, but that is now changing. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the ‘Keep Calm’ slogan, the Institute of English Studies, a member institute of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, is undertaking a £782,410 four-year research project to reveal its secret history.

 The Make Do and Mend project

The project, Make Do and Mend: a publishing and communication history of the Ministry of Information, 1939-45, is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is run in collaboration with the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and the National Archives at Kew.

The history of 'Keep Calm and Carry On' is peculiar and complicated and, like so many examples of the best history (and the best science), doesn't quite confirm our settled notions or convenient assumptions," said Professor Simon Eliot, the project’s principal investigator.
 

‘Public relations is much about getting the message's tone and timing right, and the poster's immediate fate and its subsequent rediscovery are a vivid confirmation of this fact. The findings of this study prove just how important it is to examine the workings of the Ministry of Information between 1939 and 1945 from the point of view of the history of communication. This is but one example of the rich material being unearthed by our new project.’

Much of the material collected during the investigation will be made available through the project's website, which is a combination of online museum and archive, and its Twitter feed.