A brief history of Pelican books

The first Pelican books

Pelican A1 and Pelican A2, both published on 21st May 1937

In the beginning…

The first nine Pelican books were originally published on 21st May 1937 and were Penguin books’ second imprint to be launched after the original “Main Series” Penguins in July 1935. They were intended to be the main vehicle for serious, non-fiction works for “the intelligent layman”. There were some concerns by the Lane brothers about possible rival publishers use of the imprint “Pelican”, as there had been several instances reported of customers asking for ‘Pelicans’ when they meant ‘Penguins’.

The very familiar light blue colour was chosen for the series, which took on Edward Young’s standard tri-banded cover design of the main series Penguins. The Pelicans were all numbered starting with A1 in May 1937, with the ‘A’ numbered Pelicans ending with the abandonment of the Penguin numbering systems with the advent of the ISBN system in 1970.

Pelicans A1 & A2

The series began with the publication of “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism & Fascism” by George Bernard Shaw, which was issued in two volumes as Pelicans A1 and A2. This was an extension of Shaw’s best selling “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism“, first published in 1928, by the addition of two new chapters on Sovietism and Fascism. Allen Lane had been very keen to publish Shaw’s book, and Shaw, in turn, had offered early encouragement to the Lane brothers in their Penguin venture. In keeping with the ethos of non-fiction works for the intelligent layman, Shaw dedicated his two volumes to his sister-in-law:

My Sister-in-Law
The Intelligent Woman to whose question
This book is the best answer I can Make

The early Pelicans were issued in dust-jackets. The format was similar to that used for the Penguin Main Series, except that the statement “Published by Penguin Books” was printed at the bottom of the upper blue band, and for the first four books, the price ‘6d’ was printed at the bottom of the spine, and on either side of the Pelican logo on the lower blue band. After that the price was moved to the lower inner corner of the front flap of the wrapper, allowing it to be discretely removed if the book was a gift. Strange, as all of the books were the same price and this was very well known!

Dust-jacket for Pelican A2

The other unique difference on the dust-jackets of this first publication for Pelican was that both the front  and rear flat carried information about the author; normal Penguin house practice was to use the front flap to describe the book and the rear flap for a brief biographical piece on the author. This custom was followed from Pelican A3 on, until dust-jackets were discontinued.

Pelicans A3 & A4

Pelican A3 Feb 1938       Pelican A4 May 1937

Pelicans A3 and A4 were a study in contrasts, with A3 looking forwards and A4 looking backwards.

Pelican A3 “Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapledon was a speculative book setting out a possible future of mankind into the next 2 billion years! Pelican A4 “Digging up the Past” by Sir Leonard Woolley was a book looking backwards into our early history and explaining how archaeology has allowed us to understand the past 6000 years.

In A3, Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) describes a history of mankind from the present time, through the rise and fall of eighteen distinct human species, of which we are the first, with each species superior to the one preceding it. This included migrations of man to Mars and Neptune! The book is acknowledged as being a major influence by several authors, including Brian Aldiss, C S Lewis, Arthur C Clarke, H P Lovecraft, James Blish and Sir Patrick Moore.

“Last and First Men” carried a promotional statement on the just-jacket and front cover:

“The most thrilling and original prophecy I have read for years”  Roger Pippett

“Last and First Men” had originally been published by Methuen in 1930 and had gone through five editions before Penguin published it as Pelican A3 in June 1937. Pelican A3 proved to be popular and was reprinted by Penguin in June 1937 and February 1938.

Pelican A4, “Digging up the Past” by Sir Leonard Woolley, was the first Pelican to have illustrations. The dust-jacket announced

“The Romance of Archeaology, WITH 32 PAGES OF ILLUSTRATIONS”

These were presented as a block of 32 photo-gravure plates, bound in between pages 48 and 49, containing all 47 illustrations from the original edition of the book as published in 1930.

Sir Leonard Woolley (1880-1960) was a well-known English archaeologist who was most famous for his excavation of the site of Ur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), starting in 1922. In Pelican A4, he describes the methodology of archaeology, using examples from his own excavations at Ur, as well as examples from Egyptian, Minoan and Palestinian sites.

Pelican A4 seems to have been the first re-printing of his book since its initial publication by Benn in 1930. The text was based on a series of six talks given by Woolley, that had been broadcast by BBC radio.

Pelicans A5 & A6

A well established reprint and the first new book to be commissioned by Penguin books.

Pelican A5 May 1937    Pelican A6 May 1937

Pelican A5, “A Short History of the World” by H.G. Wells was a well established title, by a famous author, with a long publishing history.

Pelican A6, “Practical Economics” by G.D.H Cole, was the first original Pelican book, and indeed the first book ever to be commissioned by Penguin books. Cole was an established author of books on Economics, Politics and History, as well as crime fiction.

Herbert George  (HG) Wells (1866-1946) was a man of enormous fame and reputation when his A Short History of the World was published by Cassell & co. in November 1922. He had written the book as an abbreviated form of his “The Outline of History”, written in 1919.

Before the publication of the book as Pelican A5 in May 1937, it had been re-printed on several occasions, including in the the “Windmill Library” in 1927 and 1933, in the  “Thinker’s Library” in 1929, 1930 and 1934. It also appeared as Penguin 31 in March 1936, which was reprinted in September 1936.

In spite of these multiple re-printings, it was successful as Pelican A5, being the subject of further re-printing in June and August 1937, as well as in a revised form with an extra three chapters in June 1938.

Wells had many of his books published by Penguin, including other titles in the Penguin and Pelican series, and several Penguin Specials. His 80th birthday in 1946 was honoured by Allan Lane by the publication of a “Penguin million”, ten titles simultaneously published at 100,000 copies each.

George Douglas Howard Cole (1889 – 1959) was an English academic who worked as a political theorist, economist, writer and historian. He was a life long Fabian and socialist and for much of his life was also a pacifist. With his wife Margaret Cole, he co-authored 34 detective novels between 1925 and 1948. He was an important mentor and teacher for two British  labor party leaders, Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson.

It is not clear why Allen Lane approached Cole to write “Practical Economics”, or why Lane thought that this was an important enough topic to warrant a commissioned book, especially as the first two Pelicans by Shaw had significant economics content that was presented from a Fabian point of view.


Pelican A7

Pelican A7 May 1937

Pelican A7 “Essays in Popular Science” by Julian Huxley was the first scientific book to be published in the Pelican series. The book was originally published in September 1926 and was reprinted twice before its publication as Pelican A7 in May 1927. It consists of 18 essays which are largely about biology, particularly genetics, evolution and reproduction. It contains a chilling essay on the lack of birth control available in London in the 1920s and a tremendous essay on the author’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley and religion.

Sir Julian Huxley (1887 – 1975) was a famous evolutionary biologist who was also very active in the popularisation of science. A member of the famous Huxley family, he was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, the son of Leonard Huxley, the brother of Aldous Huxley, and the half brother of the Nobel prize winner Sir Andrew Huxley.

Pelican A8

Pelican A8 is “The Floating Republic” by Bonamy Dobree & G. E. Mainwaring.
“The Floating Republic” was first published in 1935 and was reprinted as Pelican A8 in May 1937. It is an account of the British Naval Mutiny which took place in 1797 at Spithead near Portsmouth and at the Nore in the Thames estuary. Dobree was the author of several other Penguins.

Pelican A9

Pelican A9 May 1937

Pelican A9 is “A History of the English People (I)” by Elie Halevy.

This is the first volume of a three part history of the English People in 1815 by Elie Halevy, that was initially published in French, before first appearing in English in 1924.

This first volume deals with Political Institutions. It is the final of the nine first Pelicans which were published in May 1937. The second and third volumes of Elie Halevy’s history were also published in the Pelican series; volume (II) dealing with Economic Life was Pelican A16 which was published in October 1937 and volume (III) dealing with Religion and Culture was Pelican A30 which was published in February 1938.

Pelican A10

Pelican A10 Oct 1937

Pelican A10 is “The Mysterious Universe” by Sir James Jeans.

It was originally published in November 1930 by Cambridge University Press and was a runaway best-seller, going through 10 reprints by January 1933.

It is a popular account of the sun, solar system and the universe, together with a simple account of relativity and astrophysics.

It was published as Pelican A10 on 23rd October 1937, the first of the second tranche of Pelicans to be published, but judging by the advertisments on the back cover of the first nine Pelicans, it was meant to be published with them in May 1937.

Sir James Hopgood Jeans (1877 – 1946) was a Professor of Astrophysics and Cosmology at Cambridge University. His academic work was mostly on radiation and stellar evolution, but he spent much time later in his career writing popular accounts of astronomy and cosmology.

The Publisher’s view

Allan Lane has been quoted as being surprised by the huge success of the Pelican imprint.

“The really amazing thing, the extraordinary eye-opener that surprised the most optimistic of us, was the immediate and overwhelming success of the Pelicans. Who would have imagined that, even at 6d, there was a thirsty public anxious to buy thousands of copies of books on science, sociology, economics, archaeology, astronomy and other equally serious subjects?”

Future developments

The  light blue colour tri-banded cover design was maintained for more than ten years, until all of the Penguin designs were revised by Jan Tschichold, and the new look Pelicans with the more versatile Tschichold rectangular design started to appear in September 1949, together with his newly designed Pelican logo.

The changeover of format occurred between volumes A187 (the lowest numbered Pelican with the new format) and A214 (the last Pelican of the original format), after which no more Pelicans were issued in the original tri-banded format.

These are examples of three variations on the new Tschichold design, all published in 1950. Note the appearance of line drawings on the covers, as well as the re-designed Pelican logos.

      Pelican A200          Pelican A223            Pelican A205
In the 1960s, the Pelican look was upgraded again by the new Penguin Art director,   Germano Facetti, who worked at Penguin from 1961 to 1972. He introduced  a new approach using boldly and dramatically illustrated covers.
These are typical Pelican cover designs from the Facetti period in the 1960s. Facetti introduced the use of photographic images, often in montages, to the Pelican covers
Nearly three thousands Pelican titles were published until the series was abandoned in 1989. In April 2014,the Pelican imprint was revived, with the first 5 new Pelican titles issued for 25 years, in a new incarnation of the light blue covers.

Three of the five new Pelicans of 2014


I am attempting to put together a collection of all of the Pelicans from 1937 to 1970.

I am making a list of the early Pelican books that I have collected over the last 40 years or so. The list is presented as a complete list of Pelicans, with the ones I have in first Pelican edition in blue, the ones I have in Pelican reprint in brown and the ones I still am searching for in purple. Here are the first ten.

First 10


A 1.       The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, etc I  : George Bernard Shaw
A 2.       The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, etc II : George Bernard Shaw
A 3.       Last and First Men: Olaf Stapledon
A 4.       Digging Up the Past: Sir Leonard Woolley
A 5.       A Short History of the World: H.G. Wells
A 6.       Practical Economics: G.D.H. Cole
A 7.       Essays in Popular Science: Julian Huxley
A 8.       The Floating Republic: Dobree and Manwaring
A 9.       A History of the English People I: Elie Halevy
A 10.     The Mysterious Universe: Sir James Jeans


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