Penguin’s wartime Specials

worn and damaged 1941 paperback held together with sticky tape
My battered copy of Aircraft Recognition, 1941

Forceful covers in a time of war.

In late 1937 Penguin launched a new imprint to help the public make sense of the lead up to World War II. The Penguin Specials were topical non-fiction books written by experts about current events at the most turbulent period since Napoleon: the rise of fascism in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s repressions in Russia, Japan’s invasion of China and Korea and so on and so on.

The subjects for Specials had to be of immediate and pressing concern and, once identified, authoritative writers were commissioned to write almost to impossible deadlines. The titles commissioned before and during the war tell the story of a country trying to come to terms with world events and with its role and responsibilities. (Phil Baines)

The Specials were phenomenally popular, selling millions of copies and helping Penguin survive the coming war. Apart from the income they brought in, they guaranteed generous paper supplies from 1941 – when rationing was introduced allotments were based on the number of sales from the previous year. Penguin had suddenly become a much bigger player in the publishing field.


Magazines at the time of the Penguin Specials

The public’s wartime appetite for information was also served by the new weekly picture magazines such as Life in US and Picture Post in the UK which sold in the millions. These, and others, started at the same time as the Specials and appealed to the same market.

Photo taken from inside bomber looking down at its bombs falling on town///////photo of smiling Battle of Britain pilot

Above: a Life magazine from the time of the Normandy invasion in 1944, and a Picture Post from the Battle of Britain, 1940. Picture Post was launched by Stefan Lorant, author of the first Penguin Special, I Was Hitler’s Prisoner (see below), and it employed another Specials author, Tom Wintringham, who wrote News Ways of War (see below).

Note how these magazines and the Penguins are  linked by their cover graphics: the use of bright red panels and bold sans serif type. It is a visual language perfected by the Russian Constructivist designers of the 1920s.


Success of the Specials

Penguin Special Germany Puts teh Clock Back_Edgar Mowrer/ ///  Penguin Special_Mussolini's Roman Empire/

The first Special, Germany Puts the Clock Back, was a revised reprint of Edgar Mowrer’s 1933 book. Released in November 1937 it sold 50,000 copies in the first week, amazing for a political subject. Two further titles, both commissioned by Penguin, were rushed out in February 1938; Mussolini’s Roman Empire (above) and Blackmail or War, both achieved similar dizzying sales. The latter title was selling 4000 copies a day, and Allen Lane’s instinct that there was a great market of interested, literate ‘ordinary’ people was proven right again.

Penguin Special_Poland_WJ Rose///////Penguin Special_Europe and the Czechs_S Grant Duff

Europe and the Czechs (above) achieved a record of sorts for newspaper-like speed. It was typeset, proof-read, corrected, printed and bound in ten days, a phenomenal speed when it normally took many months for a book to appear. 50,000 copies were shipped on a Friday, and by Monday orders for another 80,000 were received.


Design of the Specials

Special_I Was Hitler's Prisoner_Stefan Lorant///////Penguin Special_What Hitler Wants_Lorimer/

The designer of the Specials cover grid is unrecorded, there was no actual graphic designer on the payroll. Perhaps it was Edward Young, the aptly named young production assistant – he was 21 at the time he designed the original Penguin cover in 1935. Whoever it was, the covers have an impressive impact. The heavy red stripes and the bold Gill Sans type, like tabloid newspaper headlines, signal ‘urgency’ to the viewer. On a retail bookshelf in 1930s Britain, they would have stood out as something important and topical.

It is worth noting that only a minority of covers had any illustration, fewer than the proportion shown here. Most relied on the visual impact of the red stripes, the black type, and the often incisive title – see above how “I Was Hitler’s Prisoner” catches your eye.


The Handbooks

Penguin Special_New Ways of War_Tom Wintringham///////Infantry Journal-Penguin Special_How the Jap Army Fights

Some of the best sellers were military handbooks that explained practical defence techniques to nervous populations. Author Tom Wintringham (New Ways of War, above) had fought in the Spanish Civil War and campaigned to establish a Home Guard in Britain. 

How the Jap Army Fights is shown in the American edition, published jointly between Penguin Books New York and the Infantry Journal. Its cover has some of the visual flair of American paperbacks at the time.

cover deisign with photo of World War 2 fighter plane/////explanatory text and drawings of fighter plane

2015 facsimile reprint of the 1941 publication. It was the biggest selling Penguin during the War. The American version, called What’s that Plane? and covering Japanese and American planes, sold 360,000 copies.

This classic text provides a definitive catalogue of the aeroplanes, enemy and friendly, seen over British skies during the Second World War. R.A. Saville-Sneath set out to produce a handy classification guide, with many diagrams, a full glossary and some useful mnemonics, showing how each type of aircraft could be identified quickly and easily. The basic structures, tail units, positions of the wings and engines, and even the sounds made by the different planes, form part of the essential ‘vocabulary’ for distinguishing Albacores and Ansons, Beauforts and Blenheims, Heinkels, Hurricanes and Junkers, Messerschmitts and Moths, Spitfires and Wellingtons. (Penguin)

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