Where Did the Peace Symbol Come From?

There are lots of symbols for peace: the dove, the olive branch, the v-shaped hand gesture. Unlike those first two, however, the peace symbol -- the wearing of which these days seems more a fashion statement than a political one -- is of much more recent vintage. Here's how it came about.

It was 1958. Worldwide concern over nuclear stockpiling and total annihilation was growing, and the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (one of many such groups, albeit the only one headed by a prominent philosopher, namely Bertrand Russell) was getting ready for a big protest at Canterbury Cathedral. They wanted a symbol of their own they could wear as a badge, and hired a British graphic artist named Gerald Holtom to create one. After experimenting with designs involving a Christian cross inside a circle, he created the now-famous "crow's foot" design.

semaphores.jpgThe crow's foot has been a symbol for death and despair since ancient times, which seemed a not-unfitting reminder of the disarmament movement goal -- stop governments from nuking us into death and/or the stone age. But Holtom's peace symbol also had a more literal meaning hidden within: it contained the semaphoric shapes for the letters "N" and "D" ("nuclear disarmament" -- seen at left). Semaphores are a means of visual communication at a distance using the arms or a pair of flags.

Holtom later elaborated on his creative process in an interview: "I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it." Here's that painting:

The circle, of course, has lots of meanings, among them eternity and the unborn child. Once Holtom's symbol had been adopted not only by the group he designed it for, but the anti-war movement as a whole a few years later, the right wing got ahold of it and created their own set of interpretations. The John Birch Society, for instance, claimed that it was the Antichrist's "broken cross," purportedly devised by Nero as a nasty way to execute Saint Peter. Others claimed it was a medieval symbol for the devil, and that it bore a striking resemblance to a Nazi badge used during WWII.

Thanks to Cecil Adams for his fine research, who also pointed out that the Birch Society has tried to "re-brand" the peace symbol thusly:

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

Custom-Design the Ugly Christmas Sweater of Your Dreams (or Nightmares)

For those of you aspiring to be the worst dressed person at your family's holiday dinner, sells—you guessed it—ugly Christmas sweaters to seasonal revelers possessing a sense of irony. But the Michigan-based online retailer has elevated kitsch to new heights by offering a create-your-own-sweater tool on its website.

Simply visit the site's homepage, and click on the Sweater Customizer link. There, you'll be provided with a basic sweater template, which you can decorate with festive snowflakes, reindeer, and other designs in five different colors. If you're feeling really creative, you can even upload photos, logos, hand-drawn pictures, and/or text. After you approve and purchase a mock-up of the final design, you can purchase the final result (prices start at under $70). But you'd better act quickly: due to high demand, orders will take about two weeks plus shipping time to arrive.


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