Creation of the Modern Day Peace Sign

Peace SignThe peace sign combines a circle and a vertical line with downward sloping lines forming a sort of upside down broken cross. During the 1960’s it symbolized the spirit of love, service to humanity, and peace. Its use grew from the anti-war hippie culture and quickly merged into mainstream society as it came to appear on everyday items such as advertisements, drawings, toys, and jewelry.

Gerald Herbert Holtom, and artist and designer, created the modern day peace sign on February 21, 1958 as a marketing symbol for the 1958 march from Trafalgar Square, London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in England. Holtom, a peacemaker, worked with the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War (DAC). As Holtom explained,

“I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalized the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.”

Holtom’s peace sign emblem was first seen publicly on April 4, 1958 at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) march.

Use of Peace Sign Spreads

Holtom's original sketch of the peace sign symbolSince the peace sign was not patented or restricted, the symbol’s usage and meaning quickly spread. The peace sign made its first appearance in the United States in 1958 when Albert Bigelow, a pacifist protester, sailed a small boat, fitted with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament banner, into the vicinity of a planned nuclear test. By 1960, the symbol had migrated to the United States and began to be used as a symbol for the counterculture anti-war peace movement. Buttons with the symbol were imported into the United States in 1960 by Philip Altbach, a freshman at the University of Chicago. Altbach had traveled to England to meet with British peace groups as a delegate from the Student Peace Union (SPU) and on his return he persuaded the SPU to adopt the symbol as their own. Between 1960 and 1964 they sold thousands of the peace sign buttons on college campuses around the country.

Hippies and their vanBeyond the typical “broken cross” representation, people began to flash a “V” sign using their index and middle finger in an effort to closely approximate the drawing using only their hands. Although the “V” sign had been used for centuries to represent “victory”, its meaning changed during the 1960’s to represent peace.

As the peace sign began to appear on buttons, bumper stickers, and in graffiti paintings, Holtom came to regret the symbolism of despair he imparted in his original peace sign drawing, as he felt that peace was something to be celebrated and wanted the symbol to be inverted. For the remainder of his life, Holtom expressed regret in not designing the peace symbol with the joyful lifting of arms towards the sky. He even requested it be placed on his tombstone in the corrected orientation (a request that was posthumously ignored).

Controversy over the Peace Sign

Nixon flashng the peace signThe 1960’s counterculture movement quickly took the peace sign as their own.  Hippies painted the emblem on clothing, automobiles, and just about any other surface they could draw upon. For some, the peace sign’s symbolism of resistance to the United States involvement in the Viet Nam war was unpatriotic and they took to calling the peace sign “the footprint of the American chicken”.

Holtom's grave with wrong orientation of peace sign symbolsFor others the peace sign symbolized nothing more than rebellion and they drew upon older uses of the symbol in an effort to disgrace the emblem. They noted that as early as 711 A.D., the peace sign was used as an anti-Christian symbol. It was placed on the shields of Saracens shields as a symbol of Christ’s broken cross. And they recalled that from 1941 to 1945 the symbol was used in various means by Hitler’s 3rd Panzer Division. The symbol can be found on some of Hitler’s SS soldiers tombstones.

The confusion about what the modern day peace symbol means is further clouded by the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, who used the symbol as the backdrop for his altar. Conservatives in the 1960’s began equating the symbol to satanic worship and give it names such as “raven’s craw” or “witch’s foot”.

Regardless of the detractors’ attempts, by end of the decade the peace sign had become a generic peace sign, crossing national and cultural boundaries.