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Peace symbol turns 50, man

Groovy creation peaked in '60s

Graphic designer Gerald Holtom created the peace symbol, unveiled at a British ban-the-bomb rally in April 1958. Graphic designer Gerald Holtom created the peace symbol, unveiled at a British ban-the-bomb rally in April 1958. (Holtom family)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Paul Farhi
Washington Post / April 5, 2008

WASHINGTON - The peace symbol, three simple lines within a circle, turned 50 yesterday. It's had a colorful and often turbulent life, which is odd considering that it's supposed to symbolize peace.

Unveiled at a British ban-the-bomb rally on April 4, 1958, the peace symbol's peak of potency was in the 1960s, when it was the emblem of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the all-things-groovily counterculture. (Said its late creator, British graphic designer Gerald Holtom: "I drew myself . . . a man in despair . . . put a circle around it to represent the world.") The symbol has been marched in service of many causes over the years: civil rights, women's rights, environmentalism, gay rights, antiapartheid, the nuclear-freeze movement, and the latter-day antiwar crowd.

Conservatives once denounced it as a lefty tool ("footprint of the American chicken"), but not all of the peace symbol's politics have been so easily classified. During the Soviet era, it was a ubiquitous totem of resistance in such cities as Prague and Berlin.

In its spare time, the peace symbol has done commercial work, much of which it probably isn't very proud of. Suffice to say, most anything that can be manufactured or marketed has at some point come with a peace symbol. Ben & Jerry's ("Peace Pops") turned it into an ice cream novelty. In 1999 the US Postal Service put it on a stamp.

The peace symbol became a hieroglyphic superstar because of its simplicity and adaptability, said Ken Kolsbun, coauthor of the new book "Peace: The Biography of a Symbol." The symbol can be rendered in a few strokes, even by the least artistically gifted, he points out.

Peace never goes out of style, but at the half-century mark, Holtom's creation has grown so recognizable, so often replicated and so drearily commercialized, that it raises the kind of question they used to ask all the time in the '60s: Has the peace symbol sold out, or is it indeed still relevant, man?

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