Keep Britain Tidy

A new book by Hester Vaizey looks at public interest posters in Britain from the 1940s to the 1970s. It presents a selection of posters from the National Archives giving tips on diet, encouraging people not to smoke and, of course, exhorting them to keep Britain tidy. Governments continue to use posters and billboards to communicate with the public and to make their policies visible.  The posters in this book, however, are very different in style and tone from those we see today – which often provoke controversy and are instantly spoofed online.  They capture a post-war era of public interest posters that evoked a spirit of communal effort.

In this guest blog post Hester Vaizey tells us what inspired the book and introduces some of the themes.

A few years ago now, the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster experienced a baffling resurgence in popularity, years after the British government produced it in 1939. Greetings cards, mugs and t-shirts have all borne this slogan. Other posters from the Second World War are also pretty well known. I knew that among the government papers, maps, photographs and art work held at The National Archives in Kew, there was a big collection of posters, and I wondered whether people would be interested in seeing some less familiar posters that were produced by the government in the decades following the war. The result is Keep Britain Tidy and Other Posters from the Nanny State – a fun, colourful collection of retro posters that you can pull out and put on the wall.

It was great fun choosing the posters, rifling through box after box deep in the vaults of The National Archives. There were so many posters that it was difficult to choose which to include, but the selection in the book combines some of the most visually appealing and the most amusing posters, as well as a range of design styles and a variety of government campaigns.

Government posters from the late forties and early fifties are reflective of the government’s concerns as Britain emerged from the war.  A key priority was to get the country’s economy back on track and accordingly posters urged workers into key industries, such as textiles and metal work. The campaign against waste continued after the war, as rationing persisted for years after the war was over. Bread rationing in Britain, for example, did not end until 1948.

Poster depicting a bowl of potatoes

The State also took proactive steps to inform its citizens how to stay healthy. While the government had wanted the nation to be fighting fit in wartime, a population free from disease could make a decisive contribution to rebuilding a prosperous society in the wake of war. Between 1939 and 1945, British men and women had risked their lives fighting a moral crusade against Fascism in Europe. One of the rewards for their sacrifices in wartime was the foundation of the welfare state, with the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948, which promised care from the cradle to the grave for people from all backgrounds. This spawned government efforts both to help people to establish good habits, and in so doing help keep the burgeoning costs of healthcare manageable. Posters therefore counselled individuals to immunise their children against diphtheria, to brush their teeth ‘both morn and night’, to get fresh air and plenty of sleep.

Poster showing how to brush your teeth

By the 1960s, the government’s poster campaigns looked beyond the recovery from war and health concerns, covering a more diverse range of issues. In response to increasing amounts of litter, which emerged as a problem in the mid-1950s as a result of wider use of plastic packaging, the Women’s Institute passed a resolution to ‘Keep Britain Tidy’. A working group was formed and in 1961 it received government funding, which led to the poster campaign. Posters for this campaign were produced by distinguished artists and designers such as Reginald Mount, Royston Cooper and Hans Unger.

Poster with giant finger pointing at a tiny man

Today, as in the recent past, government posters aim to communicate information that will alter the viewers’ behaviour.They continue to be designed to be read at speed, but the tone of the posters has changed.Whereas posters in the mid-twentieth century offered their readers friendly advice, current campaigns often use scare-tactics to exhort people to change their behaviour. Given the general volume of advertising however, be it on the television, the internet or on billboards, this harsher approach is understandably. After all, government posters have many other influences to compete against in order to get their message across.

Keep Britain Tidy, by Hester Vaizey, published by Thames & Hudson on 7th April, £14.95.

 Images © The National Archives.

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