editor's choice

How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Penguin ‘Original Ten’


The Bodley Head found itself, at the beginning of the week, sold out of ‘Penguins’, 150,000 having been sold out in four days.…
The Bookseller, 8 August 1935, a week after Penguin’s launch


In the early 1930s, Allen Lane, then director of The Bodley Head publishers, was returning from a weekend stay with the author Agatha Christie, when he found himself in Exeter train station with nothing to read. He began what was to prove an abortive search to buy some suitable literature. After reviewing the limited range of magazines and novels on offer, Lane gave up, but from that frustrating experience the germ of an idea was born, one that would lead to the creation of Penguin Books, and also turn British publishing on its head.

Launched on 30 July 1935, as a subsidiary of The Bodley Head, Penguin’s aim was simple: to publish good-looking, inexpensive quality paperback titles for a mass-market audience. As Lane himself explained: ‘people want books … good books, and … they are willing, even anxious to buy them if they are presented in a straightforward, intelligent manner at a cheap price.’

Lane’s list, the ‘Original Ten’, as the first Penguin titles came to be known, was a mixture of fiction and non-fiction and featured reprints of already published titles by established authors, including Lane’s friend Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ernest Hemingway and André Maurois. The books retailed at the bargain price of 6d each (the same price as a packet of cigarettes) and were sold not just in specialist bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists, kiosks and department stores across the country.

Volume of sales was key to Penguin’s success and Lane knew from the start that in order to survive, his company had to sell 17,000 copies of each book to break even. When Woolworth’s placed an order for 63,000 copies, it seemed that Penguin was finally financially viable.

Lane’s belief that there was a ‘vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price’ had paid off. Within a year, Penguin had sold more than 3 million paperbacks, enough for it to, in 1936, become a separate company. In 1937, Penguin was able to move to new offices and expand its list to include a Shakespeare series and the Pelican imprint.


A publisher ahead of its game

Penguincumbatorr2_2From its inception, Penguin was ahead of its peers. Lane was an innovative, forward-thinking publisher, prepared to take risks. An example of this is Lane’s introduction of the Penguincubator, a vending machine for books (see left), which was very successful. The Penguincubator drew crowds to its location outside Henderson’s (the ‘Bomb Shop’) at 66 Charing Cross Road – and also, in doing so, managed to alienate local booksellers, who saw it as taking away much-needed trade.

Lane’s leap of faith was rewarded by public and peer support for Penguin. The writer J.B. Priestley commented that Lane’s books were ‘amazingly good value‘, adding, ‘If you can make the series pay for itself with such books at such prices  – you will have performed a great publishing feat.’ George Bernard Shaw also stated, ‘If a book is any good, the cheaper the better.

By April 1938, Penguin had published 140 Penguins, 18 Shakespeare titles, 30 Pelicans and one Penguin Special. The company was going from strength to strength, but perhaps, more importantly, Lane had illustrated beyond any doubt that his dream of bringing good literature to the masses at affordable prices could and did work.


The importance of good design

Lane realised that good design was key to Penguin’s success. From the beginning, the company employed some of the leading and most innovative artists and graphic designers of the time, something it continues to do. Today, Penguin is synonymous with good, even great design; in 1935, however, the situation was very different. With a fledgling company under his belt, Lane was determined to create a strong, instantly recognisable branding for his products.













The first thing Lane needed was a suitable name and according to legend it was Lane’s own secretary who suggested ‘Penguin’. Company name down, Lane then tasked 21-year-old Edward ‘Teddy’ Young, a designer who had come to his notice at The Bodley Head, with the job of creating a striking cover template for the new list. Before that, though, he asked Young to develop a logo for the imprint, one both ‘flippant’ and ‘dignified’. Young was sent off to London Zoo to make sketches of the penguins – the result was the creation of the first quirky, but classic Penguin logo (see above).

The cover template that Young designed was quite brilliant in its simplicity. Comprising three broad bands, the top and bottom were colour coded to represent a particular series or genre. Orange and white stood for general fiction, green and white for crime fiction, dark blue and white for biographies. In the white central band, the title and author font was Gill Sans-Serif. The logo was placed in the bottom band and on the spine. The reader was left in absolutely no doubt that what he or she was reading was a Penguin Book.


Picking up a Penguin Original

The Penguin template has stood the test of time. Still revered, it has been used in recent years on a wide-range of merchandise, from deckchairs to mugs and is avidly bought by collectors of Penguin memorabilia.

The Penguin ‘Original Ten’ books, likewise, are much sought after by collectors. Although the first edition books are today extremely difficult to find, collectors may have more luck picking up one of the reissued editions published in a box set by Penguin in 1985 to commemorate its 50th anniversary. It is possible to pick these up for as little as £50 at auction (2013).

Penguin, Pelican and Puffin books have shaped, guided and informed my literary tastes and knowledge since I was a child. I have to admit to having a particular fondness though for Penguin No 1, Ariel by André Maurois – not just because it’s an extremely fine biography of Shelley, but also because I have my dad’s 1935 edition. And that book really sums up everything about why I have such an abiding love of all things Penguin.

Following are the Penguin ‘Original Ten’, the first set of books that Allen Lane published under his new imprint, in 1935.

Also see: Romek Marber, Book covers of the month, January 2014; and our Pinterest board Penguin covers we love – with a few Puffins and Pelicans thrown in, too


A lesson in literature: the ‘Original Ten’ – from Maurois to Mackenzie


penguintopten NO 1. Ariel by André Maurois


Self-pity comes so naturally to all of us, that the most solid happiness can be shaken by the compassion of a fool.’

French writer André Maurois’ biography of English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was called a book of ‘striking originality‘ following its original publication in 1924. Chosen by Lane to be No 1 in his ‘Original Ten’ titles, it’s a lyrically written book and is also an evocation of a time long past. As I said, it is a particular favourite Penguin of mine.



NO 2. A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway


‘The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places…’

Published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms arguably put Ernest Hemingway on the literary map and was his first best-seller. The story of Frederic Henry, an American serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War, the novel is both a bleak depiction of conflict and a romance.

The quote I’ve chosen from the book is one of my favourites and one I trot out at the drop of a hat. That’s beside the point though. It’s a very good novel.


NO 3. Poet’s Pub by Eric Linklater


What shambling twilight horrors we humans appear in comparison with birds!’

First published in 1930, Poet’s Pub recounts the life of Oxford poet Saturday Keith and the eccentric circle of people who stay at the pub he takes over in Downish, following a downturn in his career. The novel was adapted into a film in 1949.



NO 4. Madame Claire by Susan Ertz


‘Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.’

Although largely out of print, Susan Ertz’s books usually centre on a well-brought up heroine, forced through circumstance into dealing with the harsher realities of life. Madame Claire is Ertz’s first novel. Published in 1923, it tells of an elderly woman living in a suite in Kensington. It is undeniably charming, but it won’t set the world on fire, I’m afraid…


NO 5. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers


Books, you know, Charles, are like lobster-shells. We surround ourselves with ’em, and then we grow out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.’

I was raised on Ian Carmichael’s Lord Peter Wimsey and read all of Dorothy L. Sayer’s books religiously, thus cementing my absolute love of period crime fiction. This, the fourth of the LPW books, was published in 1928 and features the aristocratic sleuth trying to discover the circumstances leading old General Fentiman to die in his armchair in the Bellona Club. Brilliant stuff!



NO 6. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie


Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend.’

Of course, Allen Lane had to include a Christie in his first list, particularly as he had the idea for Penguin on the way back from her home in Devon. This, the Mistress of Suspense’s first novel, published in 1920, and also the book that introduces Msr Poirot himself to audiences, is just crime fiction at its best. It has a country house where murder takes place, more suspects than you could ever pray for, red herrings, secrets – and just serves to showcase Christie’s utterly divine evil genius at its best.



NO. 7 Twenty-Five by Beverley Nichols


Although probably best known for his gardening books, John Beverley Nichols was a prolific writer. This, the first in his six-part autobiography, originally published in 1926, details his life up to the age of 25 and is mainly sketches of famous people that he’d met. Somerset Maugham said of the book, ‘I have read every word of it. It has life and good nature. It is full of fun.’


NO. 8 William by E.H. Young


A best-selling author in her day, Emily Young wrote novels dealing primarily with middle-class domesticity. This book, originally published in 1925, is one of several set in fictional Upper Radstowe, reportedly based on Clifton in Bristol. The William of the title is William Nesbett, a successful businessman. Virago has republished several of Young’s books, including William (2006).


NO. 9 Gone to Earth by Mary Webb


‘…we are all as full of echoes as a rocky wood – echoes of the past, reflex echoes of the future, and echoes of the soil…’

A best-selling novelist in her day, Mary Webb set most of her books, including this one, in her beloved Shropshire. Published in 1917, it deals with a naive, beautiful protagonist, who is forced to deal with the complexities of real life after attracting the attention of two very different men. She also has a fox. Rebecca West declared it the ‘novel of the year‘. Today, Gone to Earth is possibly more famous for Stella Gibbons’ celebrated parody Cold Comfort Farm. The great Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (two favourite filmmakers) also adapted it for film in 1950.


NO. 10 Carnival by Compton Mackenzie


Sir Compton Mackenzie was an actor, broadcaster and prolific writer, probably most famous for Whisky Galore. Carnival, published in 1912, is set predominantly in turn-of-the-century London, and follows the life of dancer Jenny Pearl. It is quite hard going. Perhaps its inclusion in the ‘Ten’ is more a testament to the time at which Lane was publishing and the type of book that appealed to his intended audience.



Penguin NOs 11–20: the next books published by Lane


South Wind by Norman Douglas

The Purple Land by W.H. Hudson

Patrol by Philip MacDonald

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett                                           EDITOR’S CHOICE 

Four Frightened People by E. Arnot Robertson

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West                                      EDITOR’S CHOICE

The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty

Debonair by G.B. Stern

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield

Erewhon by Samuel Butler.


Notice: Please note the images and quotations included in this article are for promotional purposes only and are intended as a homage to Penguin, Allen Lane, Edward Young and the great writers cited. In no way, have we have intentionally breached anyone’s copyright.

This article is ©The Literary Shed, 2013. It can only be reproduced with our permission. Please contact us if you wish to do so. We must be fully credited.







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