WASHINGTON – The peace symbol – three simple lines within a circle – turns 50 today. It’s had a colorful and often turbulent life, which is odd considering that it’s supposed to symbolize, you know, 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 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 marched in service of many causes over the years: civil rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, gay rights, anti-apartheid, the nuclear-freeze movement and the latter-day antiwar crowd.
Conservatives once denounced it as a lefty tool, but not all 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 plenty of 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 U.S. Postal Service put it on a stamp.
At least it has always been more serious and thoughtful than its frivolous cousin, the smiley face.
The peace symbol became a hieroglyphic superstar because of its simplicity and adaptability, says Ken Kolsbun, co-author 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. What’s more, the symbol has never been trademarked, which means that anyone who wants a piece of peace can have at it.
Peace never goes out of style, but at the 50-year 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?