The Penguincubator

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to sell contemporary books at train stations?

This was the impetus behind the founding of Penguin books (the moment of genesis happening on Exeter station, after Allan Lane had been to visit Agatha Christie). Reading the company history a few years back, I found the fascinating little snippet:

1937 also saw the launch of the Penguin Shakespeare series and the Pelican imprint – original non-fiction books on contemporary issues – and the appearance of a book-dispensing machine at Charing Cross called the Penguincubator.

The Penguincubator. What a fabulous name. I searched in vain for a photo, trying to imagine what such a thing would look like. Giving up, I consigned the Penguincubator to my stash of mildly interesting historical facts. Until this morning.

penguincubator Flicking through the Grauniad magazine (turning quickly to Jess Cartner-Morley and Alexis Petredis, then What Women Don’t Understand About Men), I saw they had a photo article with images from their archives. They’ll be running an exhibition until March, in fact. I find photo journalism from the 50s fascinating: the way the crop marks and comments are scattered around the focal point, the glamour of the papparazzi before they started door-stepping and taking up-skirt shots. The Soho Archives exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery was equally as fascinating. So, I turned to the article and found this photo from 1957. There, cut in half by the photographer’s focus on the ‘Bikini Automat’ (and who wouldn’t be fascinated – bikinis were still shockingly risqué then), is a vending machine saying that you can ‘Buy Your Penguin’ here. It’s the Penguincubator!!!

I am so in awe. Look at it! I’m not sure it that would have been the original 1937 design, with the jaunty script and ragged edges, but that is definitely a vending machine filled with classic era Penguins. So they surivived for at least twenty years, including through WW2. Next time I write something set between those two dates which contains scenes in a railway station, the Penguincubator is getting a cameo.

I think one should be installed at Exeter station, to acknowledge its role in the founding of one of the best loved and most recognised publishing houses in the world.

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5 Responses to “The Penguincubator”

  1. Mark Clapham Says:

    As an infrequent traveller I was quite surprised to see book dispensers at airports earlier this year. Unfortunately they’re just converted snack machines, and the books are all Harlan Coben doorstop shite. Ah well.

  2. Mags Says:

    Yes, I’d always assumed it was like those snack machines, and the book would drop out the bottom. It’s actually much more like the 70s/80s Tube chocolate machines, where you’d pay and then turn a knob for the chocolate to be dropped. (or old pub cigarette machines).

  3. moosifer jones’ grouch » Blog Archive » Are friends electric? Says:

    [...] a reason WHSmiths and the penguincubator set themselves up at stations, you know. After a long day at work, you want the soft magnolia page [...]

  4. moosifer jones’ grouch » Blog Archive » Joan Fontaine – still not dead Says:

    [...] The penguincubator It’s still brilliant. I was wishing for such a device just yesterday   [...]


    [...] The Penguincabator next to the Bikini Automat (!) in this 1957 photograph (the machine was invented 20 years earlier). Courtesy of Mags, Flickr. [...]

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