The Peace Sign: Commercial Object or Symbol of Meaning?

Peace signs are popping up on products everywhere these days and I can’t help but wonder if their meaning is getting lost in the mass production.  I must admit I’m one of those consumers who is becoming mildly obsessed with this sign of hope for a peaceful and united world.  I realized that if I’m going to display the peace sign on my walls, clothing and possessions I should educate myself on the meaning and history behind it.

A quick google search brought me to this website: http://www.teachpeace.com/peacesymbolhistory.htm

Semaphoric signals used to create peace sign.

Here’s what it has to say about how the peace sign came into existence and the ways it has been used throughout history.  The “modern” peace sign was created by British artist Gerald Holtom in 1958 for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  Ironically, he created the sign out of semaphoric signals which the military uses to send messages.  Holtom used the symbols for “N” and “D”, standing for Nuclear Disarmament.  Apparently afterward Holtom wished he had drawn the arms of the sign up to make it look more joyful but this wish never took hold.  It was adopted by anti-war groups of America in the 1960’s and has survived as a symbol of peace throughout time.

In reality the sign was used for less than peaceful purposes long before Holtom “created” it for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  It has been used by satanic and anti-religious groups as an anti-Christian symbol because it looks like an upside down, broken cross.  The sign was also reportedly used by a division of Hitler’s army and as a symbol for Communism.  Even today people attempt to pervert this symbol for peace and use it for their own designs.  A few years ago my church youth group decided to make t-shirts for our group with peace signs.  Someone came up to our leader one day and told her that satanic groups had recently revived the symbol as representing the devil’s claw.  We decided to put the t-shirts away for a while, just in case.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for which the sign was originally created, has this to say about the use of the peace sign:

“Although specifically designed for the anti-nuclear movement it has quite deliberately never been copyrighted. No one has to pay or to seek permission before they use it. A symbol of freedom, it is free for all. This of course sometimes leads to its use, or misuse, in circumstances that CND and the peace movement find distasteful. It is also often exploited for commercial, advertising or general fashion purposes. We can’t stop this happening and have no intention of copyrighting it.  http://www.cnduk.org/pages/ed/cnd_sym.html

Left to right: first ceramic CND badge, early tin badge, current badge.

At it’s core, the peace sign as we understand it today is not devoid of meaning.   I for one, after educating myself, will continue to see it as a symbol of my hope for peace.  The fact that various groups have tried to subvert its meaning shows that it does have power.  Perhaps mass production will actually help to reclaim a positive interpretation for the peace sign.

There a book by Ken Kolsbun entitled Peace: The Biography of a Symbol that I look forward to reading to expand my knowledge of this subject.  Be on the lookout for a follow-up post after I get my hands on it.

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