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Our sign not for sale

As CND wins a payout from Unilever for using its famous symbol, RICHARD MAUNDERS looks at how it was born

WHEN in 1958, British textile designer and peace activist Gerald Holtom sketched out his design of an emblem for the peace movement, the last thing he had in mind was that it should be used to promote a men’s deodorant.

The motif’s significance was to give the embryonic peace movement in Britain an identity that could be easily recognised and copied. 

The design was based on the semaphor signal ND (Nuclear Disarmament) and drawn in the form of a “drooping cross” within a white circle. 

Holtom deliberately used black and white because newspapers and television were mostly produced in monochrome at the time and the symbol would be more striking to the eye. 

It was a stroke of genius, in simplicity and impact. The forerunner of the CND, the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) adopted the symbol for its first march against nuclear weapons in 1958. 

This was at the height of the cold war when the US, Britain and the USSR were carrying out nuclear weapon tests. 

Seven weeks before the first Aldermaston march Holtom came into the offices of Peace News with his designs. 

The then editor of Peace News Hugh Brock wrote of that first meeting: “Gerald Holtom, with a single-mindedness of a prophet, was burning with conviction that the forthcoming march should have a symbol associated with it that would leave in the public mind a visual image that meant nuclear disarmament.

“He insisted that the symbols be mounted on very light lathes of wood so that the marchers could carry them easily and they be pasted on to a light card with waterproof adhesive. 

“Quite frankly Pat (Arrowsmith) and I were sceptical about the symbol. Gerald was insistent it would sweep across the country, and of course, events have proved him right.”

Holtom was right beyond anyone’s imagination. The first march over Easter in 1958 began with nearly 600 marchers walking 52 miles over four days. 

It ended outside the gates of Aldermaston with 10,000 people listening to the speeches and singing peace songs. 

A new peace movement was born with a new symbol. 

No-one could be in doubt about what it stood for — an end to nuclear weapons, unilateral disarmament and for peace. 

The Times sneered at the time that the marchers were “Stalin’s puppets” but despite the distortions and demonisation of CND and its supporters, the peace movement gained immense support across Britain and the world, due in no small part to Holtom’s purposeful design genius and what it represented.

The fact that Unilever has pinched Holtom’s design in order to promote its new range of deodorants maybe an ironic twist to the story of a symbol that means much more to the peace-loving people of the world than tacky scent. 

Holtom meant it to be used in the fight for peace and an end to nuclear weapons, not for the profits of Unilever.

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