The first American Penguin?

I’ve looked before at the story of how Penguin’s first operation in the US ended in tears, despite some commercial success.  The management team, initially headed by Ian Ballantine, quickly ‘went native’, adapting the product so that it was much closer to other US paperbacks than to Penguin’s brand and self-image in the UK.

But all that was in the unknown future when Penguin first arrived in New York in 1939, just before the outbreak of war.  Ballantine had been a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics when Allen Lane chose him to lead Penguin’s venture into the US market, and he established their first US office at 3 East 17th Street, New York in July 1939.


Ian Ballantine, much later in life

The initial plan was simply to sell books imported from Britain and for the first year or so, that was what they did.   But the war made shipping books across the Atlantic increasingly dangerous.  Even worse, paper was rationed in Britain and not in the US and it made little sense to send a scarce commodity in the wrong direction.

So the decision to start printing in the US was almost inevitable.  But that’s all it was.  A decision to print in the US some of the same books that had been published in the UK, in the same format.  The British operation retained control, not only over what was printed and sold, but crucially, how it looked as well.

A lot of Penguin’s effort, and a lot of their success in the late 1930s and the early years of the war, had been in publishing ‘Penguin Specials’ – topical books on politics, sometimes written and published in record-breaking time to respond to the latest events, and almost closer to journalism than to traditional authorship and publishing.  They sold in huge quantities in Britain, at a time when the public was eager for news and analysis of the latest political and military developments.  It seems unlikely that they would have had the same impact in the US in 1940, but there was clearly some market for them.

Almost certainly the first Penguin book to be printed in the US was a Penguin Special – ‘New ways of war’ by Tom Wintringham.  The book, which according to the dustwrapper contained ‘full instructions for making handgrenades in any village garage’, had been written in July 1940 and published in August in the UK.  The US printing is dated 1940 and so cannot have been long after.  Photos of both the UK and US first printings are shown below.

 Penguin Special S75   US Penguin Special S75

Although there are clearly some differences, at first sight it’s not obvious which is which, and both are numbered S75.  If anything, the US edition (on the right) looks rather more like a pre-war UK Penguin than the UK edition does.  For some reason though, the cover picture has been changed, to one that looks even more home-made than the original, and seems to show two British soldiers in extremely dangerous positions as they attempt to blow up a German tank.  Other internal illustrations have also been altered and new ones added.

US Penguin Special S75 new illustration

A new illustration in the US edition, with some idiosyncratic captioning

By this time, dustwrappers had been abandoned in the UK in the cause of wartime economy, the paper in the UK edition is of poor quality and even the colour doesn’t look quite right.   The US edition is a significantly higher quality product.  It has a price of 25c on the dustwrapper flap and a note on the back of the title page that it is manufactured in the US ‘by union labor’.  The back cover lists other Penguin Specials with numbers S46 to S56, although it’s not clear that all of these were available for sale in the US and the list may simply have been lifted from the cover of another UK Penguin.

US Penguin Special S75 back cover

By this time, Penguin had moved to East 28th Street

The book also exists in a Second Printing that is undated but possibly from 1941 and also then in a Second Edition, first printed in July 1942.  By that time the format has changed and it is co-published with the Infantry Journal.

Rather surprisingly, it seems to have been followed by few other locally printed US Penguins over the next year or so.  I know of no other example dated 1940, and only a few from 1941.  I’ll look at them another time.     But it was 1942 before local printing in the US really took off in a big way.


Posted on December 5, 2015, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: