Critics’ Picks review - Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster

Critics' Picks

There are over 2,000 new books to browse and read in our Critics’ Picks collection, in the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room. Every book has been reviewed by top critics, including the Australian Book Review, New York Review of books, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.

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Ever wondered where the popular phrase 'Keep Calm and Carry On' came from?
Keep Calm poster and Book
Lewis, Bex. Keep Calm and Carry on : The Truth behind the Poster / Bex Lewis. 2017. Print. Great Britain. Ministry of Information. Keep Calm and Carry on [picture]. (1939). Print.

In Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster, author Bex Lewis explains how the phrase began as a poster during World War II. Posters were seen as a way to reach the masses - especially those not able to read or who were semi-literate - and were used as propaganda to persuade and inform the public during conflict.

Designed before the start of the war, the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters were never officially used until they were ‘rediscovered’ 70 years later, and now appear everywhere in a wide variety of forms - from mugs to tote bags and teapots.

Of particular interest to me was reading about why this poster and others were designed for use during the war.

“The Ministry of Information (MO1) had to assume that the public would be subjected to an unbearable series of shocks, resulting in shattered nerves, a lack of confidence in ultimate success, and therefore a lack of will to work for victory- requiring plenty of general assurance material.”

Interestingly two other posters were designed at the same time as ‘Keep Calm and Carry on.’ They were displayed around the UK – ‘Freedom is in Peril. Defend it with All Your Might’ and ‘Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your resolution will ring us victory’ to mixed public responses. These slogans aren’t nearly as catchy as ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ and yet these are the ones that were chosen to be displayed. Based on the public interest in this slogan now, you have to wonder if they made the right decision.

Poster - Freedom is in peril
Freedom is in Peril - Defend It with All Your Might (1939) - Imperial War Museum North
Poster - Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution - Will Bring Us Victory (1939)
Poster - Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution - Will Bring Us Victory (1939) - Imperial War Museum North
This began its life as a PhD thesis, but at only 80 pages, it’s an interesting little read about the use of posters during wartime and the impact they can have into the future.

The State Library actually holds one of the original 1939 posters in our collection, and it has been steadfastly carrying on with its message for over 80 years.

Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster is available in our Critics’ Picks collection at the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room


Karen Small, Librarian SLNSW

Other Reviews

"This is a readable and enlightening introduction to an aphoristic phenomenon."Times Literary Supplement

About the Author

Bex Lewis has a background as a cultural communications historian and digital practitioner, with a PhD in Second World War posters, in which she wrote the history of Keep Calm and Carry On. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and a Visiting Research Fellow at St John's College, Durham University. She is a frequent speaker, writer and facilitator, and is author of the popular 'Raising Children in a Digital Age' (2014).