The Early Penguin Specials

Penguin Specials  were the third major series to published by Penguin books, following the launch of the Penguin Main Series in July 1935 and Pelican books in May 1937. In November 1937, the publication of Penguin Special, S1, “Germany Turns Back the Clock” by Edgar Mowrer launched the Penguin Special series. These were books focused around current international political issues, and with the shadow of the approaching world war very evident to many people, they proved to be immensely popular.

Penguin themselves described the Specials on the rear covers as 

“…books of urgent topical importance published at sixpence as short a time as possible from receipt of the manuscript. Some will be reprints of famous books brought up to date, but usually they will be entirely new books published for the first time.”

The Penguin Specials originally appeared in an orange and white banded livery which was reminiscent of the tri-banded appearance of the Penguin Main Series and the Pelicans, but was distinctly different. The earliest issues came in cover matching dust jackets, just like the Main Series and the Pelicans, until the jackets were dropped for all series in 1941. The covers often had a quotation or a “puff” piece printed on them to draw further attention to the volume.

Penguin S1

The series started with S1, “Germany Turns Back the Clock” selling out its first printing of 50,000 copies in November 1937 within one week. The author was Edgar Ansel Mowrer (1892 – 1977), an American Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and war correspondent who had worked for the Chicago Daily News at the Western front in World War One, and had reported on politics from both Rome and Berlin in the late 1920s and the early 1930s.

The book had originally been published in hardback in 1933. Penguin had commissioned an extra chapter from Mowrer to bring the book up to date. There was a second printing in December 1937, followed by further printings in February, March, April, August and November 1938, and a new edition with an extra chapter in February 1939. The cover was altered for the re-printings and for the new February 1939 edition, which marked the printing of 400,000 copies of the book in 16 months. Note the new Penguin logo which appeared in mid 1938.

1st printing November 19375th printing April 19388th printing February 1939

Penguin S2, S3 & S4

The next three Penguin Specials, S2 “Mussolini’s Roman Empire” by G T Garratt, S3,   “Blackmail or War” by Genevieve Tabouis and S4, “Searchlight on Spain” by the Duchess of Atholl were all commissioned by Penguin as original Penguin Specials. The S2 and S3 were both published in February 1938 and S4 was published in June of the same year.

S2 S3 S4

The front cover of the first edition of S2 carried the text

“This we believe to be the most important book on Mussolini for some years. The author, who was the Manchester Guardian correspondent during the Abyssinian war and spent most of last year in Spain, thinks Mussolini more dangerous than most Englishmen believe.”

By January 1939, the book had gone through five printings and some revisions. The cover and dust jacket of the January 1939 edition now read as follows:

“If the new Roman Empire develops into an organism, strong enough to hold our country in pawn, and so situated that all our present re-armament will be futile, then Signor Mussolini should raise a new alter to Janus, and offer his daily thanksgiving to those men and women in England whose divided loyalties made his gamble a success.”

Penguin Special S3,  “Blackmail or War” by Genevieve Tabouis, was published in February 1938, with a photo of the author, together with the start of a brief biography, on the front cover and dust jacket. The book also contained 40 caricatures of European political figures by “Joss”.

Chamberlain Franco Stalin Hitler

Four of the principle European leaders in 1938 as drawn by “Joss” in Penguin Special S3

The author, Genevieve Tabouis (1892 – 1985), was a French journalist, who had been assigned to cover the League of Nations since 1924, and who was widely acknowledged as the most knowledgeable writer on the League. Genevieve Tabouis tried repeatedly to warn the world about Hitler and German re-armament.

Hitler went so far as to attack her directly in a May 1, 1939 speech where he said

“As for Madame Tabouis, that wisest of women, she knows what I am about to do even before I know it myself. She is ridiculous.”

 Allan Lane commissioned Genevieve Tabouis to write  “Blackmail or War” exclusively for Penguin.

 A further five printings of the book were printed by December 1938, with a new final chapter and altered cover design appearing in the “6th edition”, as Penguin called it. In all 300,000 copies had been printed in ten months.

Penguin Special S4, “Searchlight on Spain” by the Duchess of Atholl, published in June 1938, with a second printing of 50,000 copies appearing one week later, had a dramatic orange map of the Iberian peninsula printed on the front cover.

The author, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl (1874-1960) was a Scottish Unionist Member of Parliament for Kinross and West Perthshire from 1923 until 1938, when she resigned from Parliament due to her opposition to appeasement. She had visited Spain in April 1937, where she saw directly the effects of the Spanish Civil War on the non-combatants, and in her book, she took particular care to record the effects of the bombing by the Luftwaffe on women and children.

Penguin (Pelican) S5 & S6

There were also Pelican Specials published on cultural topics as a part of the Penguin Specials series.


These were printed in a light blue livery, in the same banded style as the Penguin specials. Thus Penguin Specials S5 and S6 were Pelican Specials; S5 was “Ballet” by Arnold Haskel, which was illustrated with black and white photographs reproduced in photogravure  and striking woodcuts by Kay Ambrose; and S6 was “Modern German Art” by ‘Peter Thoene’, a pseudonym to hide the true identity of the author, a German art critic, from the Nazis.

Frontispiece and title page of S5

Penguin S7, S8, S9 & S10

The final four of the first ten Penguin Specials maintained the high level of topical interest with the titles as follows: S7 was “China Struggles for Unity”, S8 was “The Air Defense of Britain”, S9 was “Europe and the Czechs” and S10 was The Jewish Problem”, (whose first chapter was entitled “The Gentile Problem”), were all published by February 1939.


It is interesting that eight of the first ten Specials were on topical geo-political issues, and that they covered the situations in Germany, Italy, Spain, The League of Nations, Czechoslovakia and China, which had been invaded by Japan in 1937. The key issues of the treatment of the Jewish population of Europe and of the dangers and threat of aerial warfare were also covered, well before the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939.

The very relevant and topical nature of the Penguin Specials, and the large volumes of their sales, ensured a large paper supply for Penguin books, once  paper rationing, caused by the onset of World War Two, was introduced. This was because the paper ration was awarded to publishing houses based on the volume of books they published just prior to the war. The success of the Penguin Specials was crucial in this respect.

A total of 145 Specials had been published by the end of 1945, with 1939 and 1940 being the peak years for new Specials. The impact of the specials fell towards the end of the war, and after the publication of S155 at the end of 1945, there was a three year hiatus before the publication of the next Penguin Special, S156 in February 1949. However a second series was started with S156, and Penguin Specials continue to be produced in smaller numbers and in smaller editions, right up to the present day. A few practical manuals were published in green covers, which were eventually re-issued as Penguin Handbooks with a PH designation.

A modern Penguin Special published by Penguin Australia in 2015

My collection of Penguin Specials

I am attempting to collect of all of the Penguin Specials published between 1937 to 1970.

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

List of Penguin Specials 1-10


    1.    Germany Turns Back the Clock: Edgar Mowrer


    2.    Mussolini’s Roman Empire: G T Garratt
    3.    Blackmail or War: Genevieve Tabouis
    4.    Searchlight on Spain: Duchess of Atholl, M.P
    5.    Ballet: Arnold Haskell
    6.    Modern German Art: “Peter Thoene”
    7.    China Struggles for Unity: J.D.M. Pringle


    8.    The Air Defense of Britain : L.E.O. Charlton, G.T. Garratt & R.Fletcher
    9.    Europe and the Czechs: S. Grant Duff
   10.   The Jewish Problem: Louis Golding


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