The Flight of the Penguins

The first Penguins were published on this day in 1935, the event generally regarded as the birth of the modern paperback industry. Allen Lane, managing director of the Bodley Head publishing firm, said the Penguin idea came to him at a railway bookstall when he couldn’t find anything worthwhile to read for his train back to London — appropriately, he had spent the weekend visiting Agatha Christie. As described by Jeremy Lewis in Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane, the publisher “decided, there and then, that he would remedy matters by producing a line of paperbacks that cost no more each than a packet of cigarettes, looked bright and elegant rather than garish, and included worthwhile works of literature.”

Albatross Books, based in Germany, had met some success with their paperbacks several years earlier, but with the rise of the Nazis to power they were forced to abandon the project. Having noted the Albatross success, the Lane switched birds and borrowed the idea of color coding — at Penguin, it was orange borders for fiction, green for crime, dark blue for biography. In the first batch of ten Penguins, Agatha Christie had one of the two books in green; Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms led those in orange.

Initial runs for each of the first ten books sold out immediately, and the newspapers gushed over the idea of a summer holiday spent with books, each priced at sixpence, “in the jolliest colored paper bindings. Perfect for seashore, wood, moorland…” The paperbacks themselves became so convenient and collectible that their publisher commissioned the design of the “Penguin Donkey,” a Bauhaus-inspired mini-bookcase suitable for any room. Lane also designed a “Penguincubator” vending machine that offered the most popular titles. With the addition of Pelicans (intellectual nonfiction) and Puffins (initially, nonfiction picture books for children), Lane was convinced that the paperback revolution would put “within our grasp the elements of true civilization, the ending of a pre-historic age.”

The Penguin logo, described by Lane as “the first serious attempt at introducing ‘branded goods’ to the book trade,” became a marketing phenomenon. There are now not only books about famous Penguin covers (Penguin by Design, Phil Baines, 2006) but a range of spin-off Penguinalia — so that, for example, the traveling bibliophile can tag his luggage with the 1957 On the Road cover.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.