What do the colours of Penguin books mean?

4 min read

It may be a revelation to some, but the various coloured bands on the top of bottom of each Penguin book cover is not some random artistic preference. The colours were chosen to avoid the illustrated gaudiness of other paperback publishers in the 1930’s and the simple appearance of three horizontal bands, (sometimes known as ‘the grid’) were colour-coded according to the series to which the title belonged:-

  • Orange and white - general fiction
  • Green and white - crime fiction,
  • Cerise and white - travel and adventure,
  • Dark blue and white - biographies,
  • Yellow and white - miscellaneous,
  • Red and white - drama
  • Purple and white - essays and ‘belles lettres’
  • Grey and white - world affairs

The story goes that Penguin founder Allen Lane, returning home from a weekend with Agatha Christie in 1934, stood on a platform at Exeter station looking for a good read for the journey. There were none, and it was from this frustration that he founded Penguin Books. His driving idea was that his paperbacks should be sold at the same price as a packet of cigarettes – and have just as much appeal.

"Good design is no more expensive than bad," Lane declared, a mantra that has guided the publisher ever since. The rigorous application of colour and geometry, as well as the rather wonky penguin, hastily drawn from life at London Zoo by the office junior, put design right at the centre of the brand from the beginning. 

Orange and White – Penguin Books General Fiction

Brideshead Revisited Penguin Books Vintage @ Country House LibraryEVELYN WAUGH’S BRIDESHEAD REVISITED 1952 – PENGUIN

Number 821 in the main series, first published in 1951. Evelyn Waugh’s classic tale of the aristocratic, Roman Catholic Marchmain family told through the eyes of Charles Ryder, eldest son Sebastian Marchmain’s close friend from Oxford University, and daughter Julia Marchmain’s future lover.

Browse our range of Orange & White Penguins

Green and White – Penguin Books Crime Fiction

Agatha Christie Penguin Books Vintage @ Country House LibraryAGATHA CHRISTIE'S THE BIG FOUR 1957

Number 1196 in the main series, first published in 1957. A Hercule Poirot adventure from the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie, although this novel ventures into the world of international intrigue and espionage – an unusual departure from Christie’s usual crime genre.

Browse Vintage Penguin Detective Fiction

Dark Blue and White - Penguin Books biographies

Gilbert & Sullivan Penguin Books Vintage @ Country House LibraryGILBERT AND SULLIVAN BY HESKETH PEARSON 1950 – PENGUIN

Number 791 in the main series, first published in 1950. Victorian era dramatist W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and his composer partner, Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), wrote and composed some of the world’s most famous comic operas including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.

Browse our range of vintage Penguin Books

Purple and White – Penguin Books Essays and Belles Lettres

D.H. Lawrence Selected Letters Penguin Books Vintage @ Country House LibraryD.H. LAWRENCE'S SELECTED LETTERS 1950-1954 – PENGUIN

Number 759 in the main series, first published in 1950. With an introduction by Aldous Huxley This edition is one of a uniform set of ten volumes of D. H Lawrence's works specially published by Penguin to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Lawrence’s death in 1930. (Books published nos. 751 – 760).

Cerise and White – Penguin Books Travel and Adventure

Cage-Birds Penguin Books Vintage @ Country House LibraryCAGE-BIRDS BY H. E. HERVEY 1943 - PENGUIN

Number 287 in the main series, first published in 1940. Lieutenant Hervey spent twenty-two months of the second world war in German prison camps trying to escape. He and his comrades concocted one ingenious scheme after another to get away. Sometimes they were found out before they left the camp. Sometimes they were caught at the frontier almost within sight of success. Occasionally one of them would escape to freedom.

Explore vintage Penguin Travel & Adventure books

Yellow and White – Penguin Books Miscellaneous

Vintage Penguin Books - Yellow for History @ Country House LibraryFOUR BOOK COLLECTION OF YELLOW VINTAGE PENGUINS

Country House Library offer a carefully selected bundle of four yellow topped Penguin classics, under Penguin’s ‘miscellaneous’ category. The first yellow-top to be published was in 1937 (number 116 in the main series) titled On England and was written by the then Prime Minister Earl (Stanley) Baldwin. With an average price of less than £6 per book this is an economical way to enhance your collection of vintage Penguin.

Go Yellow with our vintage Penguin Books selection
Red and White – Penguin Books drama

Bernard Shaw Pygmalion Penguin Books Vintage @ Country House LibraryVINTAGE PENGUIN BOOK: PYGMALION BY BERNARD SHAW 1946 - 1951

Number 300 in the main series, first published in 1941, with illustrations by Felix Topolski. The transformation of Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle into a passable imitation of a duchess by the phonetician Professor Henry Higgins. First performed in Vienna in 1913 and turned into the popular musical My Fair Lady.

Unleash your Drama Queen with our range of Penguin Drama

Grey and White – Penguin Books World Affairs

John Hersey, Hiroshima Penguin Books Vintage @ Country House LibraryVINTAGE PENGUIN: HIROSHIMA BY JOHN HERSEY 1946

Number 603 in the main series, first published in 1946. This ground-breaking book by American journalist John Hersey, tells the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is regarded as one of the earliest examples of New Journalism, in which the story-telling techniques of fiction are adapted to non-fiction reporting.

Get a grip on World Affairs with our selection of Grey Penguins

Penguin Books at Country House Library

Since its launch in 1935, Penguin Books are not only among the most recognisable in literature but also a magnet for collectors. £500 or more is not unusual for some of the rarer wartime issues, but for the enthusiastic amateur, great vintage design and writing can be collected for as little as £5.

Add colour to your collection of Penguin Books by browsing our shelves at Country House Library.



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