Keep calm and learn the secret history of wartime slogans

27 June 2014

It’s hard to believe that a wartime slogan from 1939, which was never seen by the public, has been popularised 75 years later and is being used to sell everything from mugs to flight bags and baby clothes. ‘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 message of ‘sober restraint’. 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.

Relatively little was known about the Ministry of Information, which was located in the University of London’s headquarters at Senate House. That is now changing. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the ‘Keep Calm’ slogan on 27 June, 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 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 (AHRC). It is run in collaboration with the Department of Digital Humanities (DDH) at King’s College London (which provides the co-investigator, Paul Vetch) 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 website www.moidigital.ac.uk, which is a combination of online museum and archive, and its Twitter feed (@moidigital). The website is being developed and implemented at DDH, under the leadership of Paul Vetch, to offer users a compelling multimedia experience of the Home Front during the Second World War.

Mark Dunton, contemporary records specialist for The National Archives, said he was ‘delighted’ to be working with SAS on the history of the Ministry of Information project. ‘The resources generated by it will be very useful for anyone interested in the civilian experience of the Second World War and the history of “propaganda”.’

A detailed blog post, entitled ‘Keep Calm and Carry On – the compromise behind the slogan’, has been written to mark the anniversary and will be hosted on The National Archives-administered History of Government blog from 27 June 2014.