Monday, January 21, 2008

Peace: The Biography of a Symbol

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Book CoverThe peace symbol has come to be one of those universal images, imprinted upon the collective memory, familiar and seen everywhere, taking on various roles in different movements and even becoming a part of fashion, but is rarely really thought about or explored on a deeper level (at least in more recent years). I myself have been guilty of this - only recently did I learn that the peace symbol was developed by a graphic designer for an anti-nuke campaign in England in 1958. Which makes this upcoming year the 50th birthday of the ubiquitous peace sign, celebrated by the release of a new book, Peace: The Biography of a Symbol by Ken Kolsbun with Michael Sweeney.

Published by National Geographic Books, the history of the peace sign is traced from it's origins as a symbol commissioned to represent the Ban the Bomb activists who gathered in Trafalgar square in April of 1858 to protest the testing of nuclear weapons. From that point on, the symbol, designed by Gerald Holtom, has spread throughout the world, taking on new forms and constantly being adopted for new causes.

Peace: The Biography of a Symbol will be available starting in April of 2008. Given the timing, I for one am interested in what the response will be, and where the nation and the world in general will be at this time. It is currently available for pre-order on (not all shopping is bad now is it John?)

PEACE: The Biography of a Symbol by Ken Kolsbun, with Michael Sweeney (National Geographic Books; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0294-0; April 1, 2008; $25 hardcover)


Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Sign WASHINGTON (Dec 21, 2007) -- The peace symbol. It is recognized around the globe. It has become an enduring cultural icon. For five decades, millions of people worldwide, regardless of race or religious beliefs, have looked to the peace sign to unite them. And the symbol's appeal continues with each succeeding generation. In April 2008 the peace sign turns 50. To commemorate this anniversary, National Geographic Books is publishing a tribute that traces the world-famous pictogram as it evolved from a 1950s anti-nuke emblem to a defining icon still widely seen and used today. PEACE: The Biography of a Symbol (National Geographic Books; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0294-0; April 1, 2008; $25 hardcover), by Ken Kolsbun, with Michael Sweeney, is a one-of-a-kind story about the origin of the peace sign, the man who created it and its enduring relevance through the past 50 years. The story of the peace sign began in the spring of 1958 when peace activists, clergy and Quakers in Great Britain organized a rally to draw attention to the testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons by some of the world's most powerful countries. Gerald Holtom, a textile designer and commercial artist from Twickenham, suggested the demonstrators carry posters and banners with a simple visual symbol he had designed. He created the symbol by combining the semaphore letters N and D, for nuclear disarmament. On April 4, 1958, 5,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square to show support for the Ban the Bomb movement, then walked the few miles to the town of Aldermaston, site of an atomic weapons research plant. The first peace signs appeared during that march and a second Aldermaston march the following year. From there it took flight, appearing on flags, clothes, even scratched on walls and signposts, all over Europe. Easy to remember and reproduce, the symbol soon crossed borders and cultures in a phenomenal way. It became a classic symbol, an icon of peace for the people. Like a chameleon, the symbol took on additional meanings during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the environmental movement, women's and gay rights movements and the two Iraqi wars. The symbol "continues to exert almost hypnotic appeal. It's become a rallying cry for almost any group working for social change. I'm fascinated by the simplicity of the peace symbol and how people have used it, worn it, adapted it. Each iteration of the symbol seems unique, because it bears the artistic touch of the person replicating it," writes Kolsbun. PEACE takes readers on a journey through five decades as Kolsbun presents 50 years of history in pictures and words to tell the fascinating story of mankind's elusive pursuit of peace and the symbol that represents that quest. The book contains iconic images from Kolsbun's own collection as well as a variety of historical archives, illustrating both the symbol itself and the larger history it helped shape. Many of the photographs have seldom been seen before. Kolsbun recounts the controversy inspired by the peace symbol, including several legal trials that challenged its very existence, and he debunks a number of incorrect theories about the sign, such as its being a symbol of the devil. Although it's a sign that baby boomers identify with, it has cross-generational appeal. "Children of today easily identify it. They may not know its original meaning, but they know it stands for good things -- be nice to friends, be kind to animals, no fighting. This is a marvelous achievement for Gerald Holtom's simple design. Peoples around the world have marched with it, worn it, displayed it during combat, held it high on banners, and been arrested in its name. Ask any man, woman, or child, 'What one thing would everyone in the world want more than anything else?' The answer would surely be world peace," Kolsbun concludes in his epilogue. Kolsbun, a self-described Jack-of-all trades, is a photographer, writer, historian, peace activist, game inventor, landscape architect, horticulturalist, baseball fan, mail-order catalog designer, husband and father. He continues to be active in the peace movement and is an authority of the peace symbol. He lives in Forestville, Calif. Sweeney is a professor of journalism at Utah State University. He is the award-winning author of "Secrets of Victory," which was named 2001 Book of the Year by the American Journalism Historians Association, of the National Geographic book "God Grew Tired of Us," with John Bul Dau.


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