A famous pop culture and social icon recently celebrated a notable milestone, but the birthday boy isn’t an actor, singer, or any other famous human. Instead, we’re talking about the peace symbol, the beautifully simplistic arrangement of straight lines and a circle, which just turned fifty years old yesterday and enjoyed its pinnacle of fame in the 1960s.
The peace symbol was created by a British graphic designer named Gerald Holtom in 1958 as the logo for the Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the UK. According to the web site PeaceSymbol.org, Holtom said that the graphic was of himself: “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.” Holtom further explained that the inspired lines are a combination of the semaphore letters N (for nuclear) and D (for disarmament.) It was officially introduced at a British ban-the-bomb rally on April 4, 1958.
Bayard Rustin, a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr., was in the UK at the time to participate in a march with the CND. He took the symbol back with him to the States - and the rest is history. The famous sign was adopted by the American counterculture, even if it did earn the snide nickname “the footprint of the American chicken” by those who believed that anyone who did not want to go to war were cowards. Other cynics tried to claim the symbol had antichrist beginnings, a rumor which just isn’t supported by Holtom’s explanations. It’s a versatile anti-war mark with an impressive resume, having been used in marches by groups who support civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism, and antiapartheid, among others.
Holtom purposely didn’t trademark or copyright his creation, with the belief that as a symbol of freedom, no one should ever have to pay or seek permission to use it. As a result, it’s been replicated commercially just about everywhere, on everything from t-shirts to Beanie Babies to even a flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I even own a pair of earrings in the shape of the iconic design.
There’s even a newly released biography dedicated to the symbol, called “Peace: The Biography of a Symbol” by Ken Kolsbun and Michael Sweeney, which is a collection of images and historical tidbits about one of the simplest, but most powerful graphical creations from the 20th century. The hippie counterculture of the 60s and 70s may have faded away long ago, but the peace symbol has never gone out of style. Long may it serve as an international reminder of peace for all.