The Penguincubator: books don’t just fall from the sky.

Today’s post is a real weird one- we’ve all used vending machines and we’ve all read books. But I’ve never bought a book from a vending machine. Nevertheless, there’s a real history to be told, because they crop up more often than you might think. Today we’re taking a little microhistorical look at literary vending devices- starting with the Penguincubator.

So I’ve been reading around the history of working-class literary cultures, and the role of publishing houses in this area more generally, and just happened across the most glorious technological innovation that there has ever been:


Image Credit: STML (username) via Flickr, here.

That’s Allen Lane (more on him later), pictured with the ‘Penguincubator.’ Possible the kitch-est and most hipster replacement for shelves you could ever find.

The Penguincubator, first installed at 66 Charing Cross Road, London, was a radical move. Publishers traditionally did not make these decisions, and Lane’s attempts to move the sale of books outside of bookshops and into train stations, museums and the streets annoyed a lot of booksellers. Allen Lane was a bold man, however (controversies over the publication of Ulysses early in his career, and over Lady Chatterley’s Lover much later), and pressed on regardless.

The idea of literature-vending has been recently applied in Singapore by Independent bookstore BooksActually (pictured below). Located at the National Museum of Singapore and the Singapore Visitor Centre, it’s seen as little more than a publicity tool by some skeptics.

Image Credit: Asmara Wreksono, The Jakarta Post, 03-06-16 (here).

But vending machines have been used to sell books throughout the twentieth (and twenty-first) century is a few different forms- you could check out Suzi Holler’s Pinterest for more. Special attention must be paid to the contraption below- it holds 150 (or so) ‘pocket books,’ and sold them for 25 cents each.


Image Credit: Book Vending Machines, Nate Pedersen. Article here.

Allen Lane’s Penguincubator remains one of the most famous, though, because of the broader public success of Penguin books, and the role the company had in the ‘Paperback Revolution.’ The story goes that, in 1933, after visiting his friend (the world’s best-selling author) Agatha Christie, Lane found himself at a train station with nothing to do. He looked through the shelves of the bookstall, but could find only magazines and re-prints of older, Victorian novels. Lane made the decision that good quality, contemporary fiction should be made available to the public at train stations, tobacconists, chain stores and lots of other, more accessible places, rather than just from the traditional book shop.

It’s a story of radical business thinking that sums up a lot of what Allen Lane did for publishing. Born into a family of publishers, he rose quickly through the ranks and caused a great deal of controversy, more than once. Indeed, his lack of fear is what led him to found Penguin Books (as part of Bodley Head, later separated) in 1935. He is often difficult to quantify, politically: indeed he once described his business model as “at once, both missionary and mercenary.” He believed strongly in the wide availability of knowledge and held a faith in the transformative power of literature- his introduction of the paperback in a financially successful, long-term format allowed Penguin to become a rapidly growing giant in the publishing industry, but also acted as an advent of a mass literary culture in the interwar period in Britain. The affordability of paperbacks, and Lane’s conscious decision to print good quality and contemporary work, meant that working class people had access to a cultural consciousness that they had previously been actively denied. Being able to read essays, poetry, avant-garde novels and educational texts changed working-class political and cultural engagement: and Penguin didn’t do too badly either.

It’s interesting, given the usual understanding that ‘business’ and ‘politics’ are incompatible, to compare Lane’s sentiments with those of the manager of BooksActually: speaking about their vending, she said, “It’s meant to reach out to people who generally won’t visit, or have not heard of the bookstore or Singapore literature… We know it’s a novelty that won’t bring a lot of profits, but we’re more concerned with people knowing about Singapore literature than anything; that’s more important to us.”


It is interesting to consider the role of the publishing house in the traditional historical narratives of literary cultures: emphasis is traditionally placed on the role of authors, or on the readers, but there is a story to be told about the publisher as an intermediary force. Indeed, Penguin were not alone in their conscious engagement with a working-class audience- Victor Gollancz’s publishing house (possible most famous for connections to George Orwell and other such radical political figures) also sought to make contemporary works affordable and accessible, though with a greater focus on politics than on fiction.

Indeed, the two examples share similarities: one of the most discussed features of both Penguin and Gollancz books is the advances made in design. Specifically, the uniform colour and style of the book-covers, which made them easily recognisable to their audience and appealing to a broad range of consumers. This extended into Penguin books’ decision to market different types of book under different umbrella names- hence the success of the Puffin range, or the Pelicans. This is also part of the long-term story of the success of paperbacks in Britain, not least because of the sudden recent collectibility of those mid-century orange beauties. For more on the design history, you could try Baines’ Penguin by Design: A Cover Story, 1935-2005 or Buckley’s Penguin 75: Designers, Authors, Commentary… both immensely interesting.

Front cover of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by DH Lawrence, designed by Stephen Russ, published by Penguin, 1960. Museum no. LOAN:PENGUIN BOOKSFront cover of 'Maigret's Special Murder' by Georges Simeon, designed by Karl Ferris, published by Penguin, 1966. Museum no. LOAN:PENGUIN BOOKS

Front cover of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by DH Lawrence, designed by Stephen Russ, published by Penguin, 1960. Front cover of ‘Maigret’s Special Murder’ by Georges Simeon, designed by Karl Ferris, published by Penguin, 1966. Both images are from the V&A website, where they were reproduced with permission from Penguin.

There are other stories to be told about both Penguin and Gollancz- Lady Chatterley’s lover was quite the controversial release, and Gollancz’s political life is fascinating. Even Agatha Christie will pop up again on this blog- not only was she prolific as an author, but she was a mysterious woman in her time off too. Literacy, book interest and working class culture is an interesting type of history to tackle too- much too big for one blog post. You can expect a revisit pretty soon: a microhistory of book clubs, the idea of ‘women’s literature,’ and other themes sound interesting?

I’d love feedback on this post, and any others: let me know how well/badly the tone is pitched; do you want more/less info; more/less pictures? Do you want more/less politics? Feel free to recommend a subject for the future too- all ideas are welcomed (though some are more feasible than others!)

Bibliography and Recommendations:

On Allen Lane and/or Penguin:

On Gollancz, historical working class literature, and other themes:






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