Founded in 1935 by Allen Lane at 8, Vigo Street (Mayfair, London) Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its selling of modestly priced paperbacks – sixpence – then the price of a packet of cigarettes!
It seems Mr Lane (later to become Sir Alan) may have had his idea for well designed and engaging paperback books as a result of the poor quality of available texts on offer at Exeter train station.
The earliest Penguin imprints were released under the Series Title of “The Bodley Head” a publishing business co-founded by Mr Lane’s uncle, John Lane.
The books were colour-coded, the initial colours were orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for crime and the first published included titles by Ernest Hemingway (“A Farewell to Arms”) (our featured image) and Agatha Christie (“The Mysterious Affair at Styles”).
Design was essential to Penguin’s success and it was essentially very simple with three horizontal bands across the book – two of which were colour-coded. The initial design of the Penguin logo was by office junior, Edward Young. There is little doubt that the immediacy of recognition contributed enormously to the success of this iconic British publishing house.
The deliberately low sales price appears to have assisted Mr Lane in securing publication rights to a wide variety of books; other publishers couldn’t see the commercial sense in such low cover prices and anticipated it would be short lived. However, in 1936 an order from Woolworth for 63,000 books covered all exposure on costs and allowed Mr Lane to establish Penguin as a separate company. By March 1936 one million Penguin books had been printed.
The Second World War saw the Penguin establish itself deep in the national heart of the UK with its manuals such as Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps and Aircraft Recognition.
In 1945, the fabulous Penguin Classics was formed with a translation of Homer’s Odyssey by E. V. Rieu.
Penguin’s notoriety was boosted with Mr Lane’s decision in 1960 to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. A resulting obscenity trial – which Penguin won – helped drive sales to over 3.5 million copies.
In 1964, Penguin published Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
By 1970 Penguin was in financial difficulty, sadly Sir Allen died on 7 July and six weeks later, Penguin was acquired by Pearson PLC.
1976 “The Snowman” by Raymond Briggs was published by Hamish Hamilton (acquired by Penguin in 1985) and 1983 Penguin acquired Frederick Warne, best known for the Beatrix Potter books. This would allow Penguin to diversify many years later with an animated series of Ms Potter’s characters.
Penguin’s next twenty years saw it again as the fearless publisher including the release, in 1998, of Deborah Lipstadt’s book “Denying the Holocaust” which accused David Irving of Holocaust denial – causing Irving to unsuccessfully sue the author and Penguin. “Spycatcher”, which was suppressed in the UK by the government for a while and Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” which resulted in Ayatollah’s Iran issuing a Fatwa against him.
Penguin has evolved to compete with the new electronic book technology – publishing its own e-books in 2008.
Penguin Books is now an imprint of the worldwide Penguin Random House, an emerging conglomerate which was formed in 2013 by the merger of the two publishers Pearson PLC now retains a minority shareholding of 47% against Random House’s owner Bertelsmann which controls the majority stake.
I suspect for the majority of those reading this review of this wonderful and iconic British design classic, the memory of walking into a family drawing room or bedroom, seeing and selecting a read from a line of, often, orange and white coloured small format books remains a most cherished memory.
Please contact us if you’d like to buy an art print reproduction of certain of Penguin’s classic book covers – we have opened a discussion on behalf of Aestheticons readers with a leading supplier.
Featured Images from Penguin Books