The UK-based Penguin Publishing Group was originally founded in 1935 as a brand of affordable, yet attractive paperback books. Since then, the Penguin imprint has become an icon known among other things for its minimalist and innovative book cover designs.

Penguin First Editions

Reviewed by:
Courtney Stine, Assistant Professor and Director
Bridwell Art Library, University of Louisville
courtney.stine@louisville.edu
https://doi.org/10.17613/k7n7-tk55

The UK-based Penguin Publishing Group was originally founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane, who wanted a brand of affordable, yet attractive paperback books that could be “bought as easily and casually as a packet of cigarettes” (Penguin.com, “Our Story”).  Since then, the Penguin imprint has become an icon known among other things for its minimalist and innovative book cover designs. The books are so beloved that an educational charity called Penguin Collectors Society (PCS) was formed in 2001 to promote the study of Penguin books. A PCS member and hobbyist collector, Alec Atchison, created the website Penguin First Editions to provide a visual record and information about its titles. 

The Penguin First Editions website is a lot to take in at first glance. Text is presented in various colors and formats which can be straining on the eyes and difficult to read. At the top of the homepage there is a search bar powered by Google that retrieves search results within the site. A series of links on the homepage provides access to lists of series, illustrators and cover designers, and translators for English language editions, as well as a brief history of the Penguin Books imprint. These links are colorful and formatted to look like the design of Penguin first edition covers. 

Penguin First Editions homepage showing site design elements including white space

A page index and  site map are essential for understanding what content is available, and for fully navigating the website. External links point to sites including the Penguin Collectors Society, videos by a memorabilia buff, Penguin merchandise, and bookstores. The site’s look and feel probably has not changed much since it was launched in 2013. It is not formatted for modern browsers, so there is a lot of white space. The site URL is not secure (no https://) and the copyright is dated to 2019. Despite its outdated appearance, the homepage mentions the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is still getting updated. 

Penguin First Editions is an informative and comprehensive resource primarily focusing on first editions  released between 1935-1955. Over the years the website  has expanded to over 150 pages of content and over 8,000 entries and images. The site entries provide basic information for each book,  including series name and number, title, author, publication date, printer, and original price. Thumbnail images of book cover designs accompanying each entry open in a new tab to show a large image. The images are a bit grainy but legible and better than other examples found on the web. Each cover and logo has been reproduced with the permission of Penguin Books Ltd., who retain copyright and intellectual property. 

Screenshot showing entries from list of titles on the Penguin First Editions site, including thumbnail images of book covers, and information on series, title, author, date published, pages, printer, and price.
Entries from list of titles on the Penguin First Editions site, including thumbnail images of book covers

Many librarians and archivists were credited with contributing to the site through digitization of books and other efforts. In particular, the Stirling University Library, which contains the Mitchell Penguin Collection (3500 books collected by Dr. Angus Mitchell), was mentioned as a major partner. 

This is a niche resource that will prove useful to anyone interested in Penguin books and the history of early twentieth-century publishing, graphic design and typography. For further research, the Penguin.com website has an interactive timeline about the history of the publishing group and descriptions of its series. The Penguin Series Design blog contains visual examples and contextual analysis of book designs, artists, and themes for various series under the Penguin imprint. The publication Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover, edited by Paul Buckley, provides a visual overview of the Penguin Classics book covers for book design and classic literature enthusiasts.