In 1939, the Government issued a series of reassuring public-service posters, including one that never made it to final print. It read: Keep Calm and Carry On. In 2000, the original prototype was discovered by a bookseller from Northumberland. Since then, reprints of the logo have become a must-have design classic. Here, the man who discovered it shares his story
It started as a day like any other. I was in the back area of Barter Books, the bookshop that I own in Alnwick with my wife Mary. We were sorting through a big delivery of books from auction. When we receive this sort of delivery, we tend to rummage through the most interesting-looking boxes first, and the others can be neglected for quite a while. On this particular day I decided to tackle an unappealing batch of boxes that had been hanging around in the corner of the room for a few months, before starting on the new lot.
There were about 30 books in the first box I opened – most were pretty poor and ended up in the recycling. But as I got towards the bottom of the box, I noticed a big folded piece of paper. I pulled it out and found a lovely red poster, reading "Keep Calm and Carry On". It had a really nice feeling about it. That evening, I took it home to Mary; she loved it too and thought we should have it framed and hung on the wall of our bookshop.
As soon as we put it up, people started commenting. A number of customers wanted to buy it, but we refused to sell. Eventually, so many people showed an interest that my co-workers and I decided to get some copies done in secret – Mary is a bit of a purist and wouldn't have been pleased at the idea. We had about 50 copies in mind, but 500 was the printer's minimum. We thought we'd just hold on to the rest for as long as it took to flog them, but within a year they'd sold out.
It wasn't until 2005 that all hell broke loose. A copy of the print appeared in a national newspaper, and suddenly our phone was ringing off the hook. Our website crashed because there were too many visitors logging on. In order to cope, our bookshop turned into a military operation. We were dispatching 3,000 posters each week. Having seen the sales figures, Mary came round to the idea!
We thought it was a bit of fun and that after a while it would die down, but it didn't. The next curious thing was that people started using the design for T-shirts and mugs and badges. Soon, the print was cropping up in doctors' surgeries in town. The other day, I saw it tucked into a street scene as part of a background detail in a cartoon sketch. I thought how marvellous it is that this has become part of the fabric of contemporary culture. I'm proud to think that I have resurrected a piece of history that would have otherwise been lost in the mists of time. It might have been gone for ever.
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