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Where Did the Peace Sign Come From?

Where Did the Peace Sign Come From?

It is instantly recognizable as a sign of peace, but what is the symbolism behind the peace sign? The olive branch came from ancient Greece, the dove from the bible…but where did that circle with the chicken-footprint come from?!

Rewind back to 1958 when London textile designer, Gerald Holtom, wanted to create a symbol for marchers to carry on banners and signs at a “Ban the Bomb” march planned by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC). The event was Britain’s first major demonstration against nuclear weapons–a 52-mile march from London to the town of Aldermaston, home to an A-bomb research center.

Members of the DAC came to the march emblazoned with Holtom’s circle-with-lines symbol; but to bystanders, its meaning was a mystery.

Nowadays we all know what the symbol stands for, but what is the meaning behind the design? Holtom created the symbol by combining the flag semaphore signals for the letters N (for nuclear) and D (for disarmament) and putting them in a circle. The symbol is essentially a logo for the concept of nuclear disarmament! Such graphic elegance.

Later the symbol was adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). In 1960, the peace sign was imported to the United States via a peace sign button brought from the UK to the US by Philip Altbach, a freshman at the University of Chicago. The symbol had shown up here and there in the US prior to that, but when Altbach convinced the Student Peace Union to adopt the sign as its symbol, the popularity of the peace sign grew immensely. By the late 1960s, the peace sign had become an international symbol adopted by anti-war protestors, and it doesn’t seem to be losing steam any time soon.

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

204 comments

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2:14PM PDT on Oct 14, 2012

nice reminder

2:24PM PST on Feb 10, 2012

Hey, I took those flag semaphore photographs! They are two of a full series of the flag semaphore alphanumeric code that I uploaded to istockphoto.com. The mannequin is, of course, an IKEA artist's mannequin but, what you won't know is that the flags are home made from wooden coffee stirrers with printed address labels folded and stuck around the wooden sticks! :) It's so rare that I ever find out what people do with my images when they download from istock, so it was a pleasant surprise to find this article.

3:05AM PDT on Aug 22, 2011

Thanks for the article.

9:35AM PDT on Aug 11, 2011

Yes, this symbol goes back much further actually. Perhaps 1958 marks the start of this symbol being used to represent 'peace.' As I understand it, it goes back to Nero's time. Nero was anti-Christian and had many a Christian killed. This was his 'broken cross.' It may in fact go back further than Nero even, as most of our recognized symbols do. As Confucius said, it's not laws or words that govern man, but symbols. Beware of all symbols around you and their deeper meanings. We need to become educated.

1:50PM PST on Nov 14, 2010

"...The truth is, that the symbol has a completely different meaning and that the story of its origin goes many million years into the past. Many million years ago it was called into existence by Nokodemion, and it carries the meaning of death and the existence in death. In 2004, FIGU published a so-called book of symbols ("Symbole der Geisteslehre") in which some of the ancient symbols of Nokodemion are shown.

An interesting fact is that the modern PEACE symbol looks very much like the old symbol for death. However, those who oppose the theory of the symbols' ancient origin only see a pure coincidence in the similarity to the symbol for death, and consider it to be merely a subject for conspiracy theorists." Billy Meier

3:05PM PDT on Oct 24, 2010

very interesting

8:12PM PDT on Oct 17, 2010

i love the peace symbol...its like my "sign of the cross" in christianity. its tattooed on my body.

4:58PM PDT on Oct 17, 2010

Thank You

1:28PM PDT on Oct 17, 2010

Thank you, very interesting.

9:00AM PDT on Oct 17, 2010

very interesting, thanks

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