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Happy 80th birthday, Penguin Books

helena fairfax, penguin books
Some of my beloved and battered Penguins

This year marks 80 years since Penguin Books printed their first paperbacks and changed the way readers thought about books forever.

Penguin Books was first set up in 1935 by Allen Lane, who was then a director at the Bodley Head imprint. The story goes that he was coming back from a trip to visit Agatha Christie in Devon. Whilst waiting on the platform at Exeter station he checked out the bookstall, and the only things he could find to read were magazines or reprints of old Victorian novels. He was appalled at the selection on offer and decided to set up an imprint that would make good quality books available to all, at an affordable price, and on sale not just in bookshops, but at outlets such as tobacconists and chain stores.

Apparently Allen Lane’s secretary came up with the idea of Penguin for the imprint’s name, and an artist was sent to London Zoo to make some sketches. And so the Penguin was born, and is probably now the most recognised brand in publishing.

The first Penguin books were colour coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence. Today, Penguins come in a variety of magnificent covers. You can find 20 iconic covers pictured here. You can read more about Penguin’s history on the Penguin Books website.
To celebrate 80 years, Penguin have just released a new series of 80 books in a range called Little Black Classics. The books will cost just 80p each ($1), and consist of a wide variety of famous and little known titles, such as The Beautiful Cassandra, by Jane Austen, The Tell-Tale Heart, by Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, by Oscar Wilde and The Night is Darkening Round Me, by Emily Bronte. You can check out the full list of titles here on Amazon.
helena fairfax, penguin books

Penguin have also designed a clever and interactive website. You move a Penguin around a wheel to discover all 80 titles, plus quotes from the books. How totally different the world of publishing is today from the world in which Allen Lane first launched Penguin books!

My bookshelves are full of both Penguin books and the children’s imprint Puffin books. Where would the world of books be without Allen Lane’s amazing foresight? Happy birthday, Penguin, and I ‘d love to know what the next 80 years will bring!

Do you have any Penguin books on your shelves? Can you think of any Penguin covers you love? If you have any questions or comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

4 thoughts on “Happy 80th birthday, Penguin Books

  1. Loved reading this history, Helena. Did not know it at all. I’ve read lots of Penguin books over the years, but I don’t remember titles, much less connecting them to the publisher. Though I know I’ve read them. Does that make sense? My brain is still somewhat frozen from the 2 hours in the car with a bunch of other crazies who thought they had to be on out the snowy roads to day. Texas drivers tend to freak at the first flake of snow, but don’t have the sense to stay inside. Unfortunately the snow started after kids got to school. We’d had a forecast for earlier in the week, when it was supposed to come and didn’t! So no one could chance the forecasters being wrong on this one. And who are we in Texas to cry about the weather. Poor folks in Boston and other parts of New England. I haven’t heard of y’all having anything beyond beastly, Helena. Sorry for running on. As I said, my brain is frozen, but not so much I won’t remember to share this delightful post. :)


    1. Thanks for coming by, Marsha. I wasn’t sure if the Penguin brand was as immediately recognisable outside the UK. They certainly have a world-wide reach, especially now they’ve joined forces with Random House.
      So sorry to hear of your experiences driving in snow. We know all about it in England. Most years we might get a couple of weeks of snow. The whole country grinds to a halt. Driving to work on a snow day is an absolute nightmare. We’re not equipped for it at all. I can sympathise! Glad you got home safely. Stay warm!


  2. Interesting history here. I guess I never thought about the founding of Penguin books, It’s just always been around. I don’t pay attention to publishers so I have no idea if I read a Penguin book or not. Thanks for the info. Tell Tale Heart is one of my favorite stories!


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