keep calm and carry on – The MEME game

World War II. According to Wikipedia, World War II was “the deadliest military conflict in absolute terms of total casualties”. Perhaps, the darkest time in human history. Over 60 million people were killed by the most lethal forces – evils of the society. The statistics, however, vary greatly, with estimates of total deaths ranging from 50 million to more than 80 million. The highest figure of 80 million includes deaths from war-related diseases and famine. While military deaths, including deaths in captivity of about 5 million P.O.W, totaled 21 to 25 million, the number of civilians killed totaled 50 to 55 million.


In the midst of this dreadful period of wars that claimed an incalculable number of lives and left lakhs of people homeless, the British government was struggling to boost the morale of its loyal citizens, who were threatened with widely predicted mass air attacks on major cities. How could they give people a ray of hope that everything was going to be alright when hundreds of innocent souls were getting killed every day? How could they give people an assurance that their brothers would come back home soon? These questions kept on knocking the doors of the British government every day, every hour, every second. In 1939, they finally figured out a way to contain the situation across the country.

The British government sought help from the Ministry of Information (MOI), a United Kingdom government department which was created briefly at the end of the First World War and again during the Second World War. It was formed as central government department which was responsible for publicity and propaganda. During the period of 27th June to 6th July 1939, the Ministry designed the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. It was produced as a part of three “Home Publicity” posters – “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” & “Freedom Is In Peril/Defend It With All Your Might”. Each poster showed the slogan under a representation of a “Tudor Crown” – a widely used symbol in the heraldry of the United Kingdom.

The Ministry of Information undertook the task of large-scale printing of the posters, printing about 2,50,000 copies between 23rd August 1939 and 3rd September 1939. However, the posters were never officially sanctioned for immediate public display. The officials were not able to decide whether the posters were too patronizing. Moreover, they could not settle on an appropriate time to hang the posters. Eventually, it was decided to keep them in “cold storage” and use them after serious air raids. Copies of “Keep Calm and Carry On” were retained until April 1940, but stocks were then recycled as a part of the wider Paper Salvage campaign and the remainder of the publicity campaign was canceled following criticism of its cost and impact. The campaign could not see the light of the day and it remained obscure to the good citizens of Britain, to the whole world for that matter.


It would have been lost forever, but we all know the forces of nature work in mysterious ways. In 2000, around 61 years later, the posters revealed themselves to the world – all credit goes to Stuart Manley, the unsung agent of the Almighty who discovered the posters when he was sorting through a box of used books that he bought from an auction. He framed it and hung it up by the cash register; it attracted so much interest that Manley began to produce and sell copies of the posters. The design rapidly began to be used as the theme for a wide range of products.

Apparently, the posters are now used in an entirely different context. Thanks to the internet and the smart ones using it, the posters have become a part of the meme culture. Who could have thought that a simple poster, which is used to make memes nowadays, was intended to be used during the period of war to help people rise above the most catastrophic agents of evil – hate and war?









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