Skip to main content Accessibility help

“The Penguins Are Coming”: Brand Mascots and Utopian Mass Consumption in Interwar Britain

  • Richard Hornsey


This article explores the cultural dynamics of branding and mass consumption in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s. It focuses on Penguin Books’ cartoon mascot, which appeared on all of the firm's paperback covers and in-store promotional material from 1935. A familiar but critically ignored cultural icon, Penguin's mascot followed a wave of prominent advertising characters that energetically burst onto Britain's commercial scene in the early 1920s. Highly visible on packaging, poster hoardings, and advertisements within the press, brand mascots became popular media stars in the 1920s, seeming to herald a dawning age of material parity and collective consumer sovereignty. A decade later, Penguin's mascot used this utopianism around branded mass consumption to forge a leftist vision of social-democratic progress. Augmented by certain in-store display techniques and modes of purchase, Penguin Books appeared to constitute an enlightened public sphere. The cartoon bird became a lucrative mechanism through which browsers were invited to contribute to this progressive cultural project.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      “The Penguins Are Coming”: Brand Mascots and Utopian Mass Consumption in Interwar Britain
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      “The Penguins Are Coming”: Brand Mascots and Utopian Mass Consumption in Interwar Britain
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      “The Penguins Are Coming”: Brand Mascots and Utopian Mass Consumption in Interwar Britain
      Available formats



Hide All

1 “The Penguins Are Coming” (advertisement), Publishers’ Circular and the Publisher and Bookseller, 25 May 1935, 707.

2 Sales notice, 5 October 1936, in Scrapbook (1935–9), DM1294/1/1, Penguin Archive, University of Bristol Library Special Collections.

3 Raymond, Harold, Publishing and Bookselling: A Survey of Post-War Developments and Present-Day Problems (London, 1938), 23.

4 Cole, Margaret, Books and the People (London, 1938), 6, 38. See also Kitchin, Donald, “A Revolution in Publishing,” Left Review (May 1938): 970–72.

5 L.H., “Penguin Books,” Tenbury Wells Mail (2 May 1936), in Scrapbook (1935–9), Penguin Archive.

6 Hilliard, Christopher, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 1516. See also Dark, Sidney, The New Reading Public (London, 1922); Leavis, Q. D., Fiction and the Reading Public (London, 1932); Philip Unwin, “A New Reading Public?,” Bookseller, 5 April 1934: 184.

7 Lane, Allen, “Penguins and Pelicans,” Penrose Annual 40 (1938): 4044, at 41. Emphasis in the original.

8 Rylance, Rick, “Reading with a Mission: The Public Sphere of Penguin Books,” Critical Quarterly 47, no. 4 (December 2005): 4966.

9 Catherine Feely, “Karl Marx, Capital and Radical Book Cultures in Britain, 1881–1945” (PhD diss., University of Manchester, 2011), 171–77. In 1938, probably in reaction to the success of the Left Book Club, Lane claimed that local Pelican Clubs had sprung up around the country, at which readers discussed topics raised by the latest books. These clubs, if they existed, have left no archival trace. See Lane, Allen, “Books for the Million…,” Left Review 3, no. 16 (May 1938): 968–70, at 969.

10 Jones, Linda Lloyd, “Fifty Years of Penguin Books,” in Fifty Penguin Years, ed. Lloyd, Linda Jones and Jeremy Aynsley (Harmondsworth, 1985), 11104, at 24.

11 Mass-Observation, “A Report on Penguin World,” December 1947, FR 2545, 38–58, Mass-Observation Archives (hereafter MOA), University of Sussex. All quotations by permission of the trustees.

12 Baines, Phil, Penguin by Design: A Cover Story, 1935–2005 (London, 2005), 13; Almlund, Kristoffer Bundgaard, “But Why a Penguin?,” Penguin Collector 63 (December 2004): 5155; Lewis, Jeremy, Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane (London, 2006), 91; Lloyd Jones, “Fifty Years of Penguin Books,” 16; McCleery, Alistair, “The Return of the Publisher to Book History: The Case of Allen Lane,” Book History 5 (2002): 161–85, at 167.

13 See Preston Benson, “10,000,000 Books in Two Years from £100 Capital,” Star (London), 7 October 1937; Ian Coster, “He Got the Bird,” London Evening Standard, 1 November 1938.

14 Young, Edward, “The Early Days of Penguins,” Book Collector 6 (1953): 210–11, at 210–11.

15 McCleery, “The Return of the Publisher to Book History,” 165–66. See also Hare, Steve, “Creation Myths,” The Penguin Collector 76 (2011): 611.

16 This was also true of its Pelican sibling, which was used both as a colophon on the company's adult-education paperbacks and as a mascot in its advertising and promotion.

17 See Fraser, W. Hamish, The Coming of the Mass Market, 1850–1914 (London, 1981); Richards, Thomas, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851–1914 (London, 1991); Ward, Vernon, “Marketing Convenience Foods between the Wars,” in Adding Value: Brands and Marketing in Food and Drink, ed. Jones, Geoffrey G. and Morgan, Nicholas J. (London, 1994), 259288, at 260–1.

18 See, for instance, Benson, John, The Rise of Consumer Society in Britain, 1880–1980 (London, 1994); Fitzgerald, Robert, Rowntree and the Marketing Revolution, 1862–1969 (Cambridge, 1995); Hilton, Matthew, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement (Oxford, 2003); Nevett, T. R., Advertising in Britain: A History (London, 1982); Schwarzkopf, Stefan, “Turning Trademarks into Brands: How Advertising Agencies Practiced and Conceptualised Branding, 1890–1930,” in Trademarks, Brands and Competitiveness, ed. da Silva, Theresa and Duguid, Paul (London, 2010): 165–93; Turner, E. S., The Shocking History of Advertising, rev. ed. (Harmondsworth, 1965).

19 See for example Brown, Stephen, “Where the Wild Brands Are: Some Thoughts on Anthropomorphic Branding,” Marketing Review 10, no. 3 (August 2010): 209–24; Callcott, Margaret F. and Lee, Wei-Na, “Establishing the Spokes-Character in Academic Inquiry: Historical Review and Framework for Definition,” Advances in Consumer Research 22 (1995): 144–51; Hosany, Sameer et al. , “Theory and Strategies of Anthropomorphic Brand Characters from Peter Rabbit, Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, to Hello Kitty,” Journal of Marketing Management 29, nos. 1–2 (2013): 4868; Phillips, Barbara J., “Defining Trade Characters and Their Role in American Popular Culture,” Journal of Popular Culture 29, no. 4 (Spring 1996): 143–58; Phillips, Barbara J., “Spokes-Characters: Assurance, Insurance and Advice for Marketers,” in Brand Mascots, and Other Marketing Animals, ed. Brown, Stephen and Ponsonby-McCabe, Sharon (London, 2014), 165–74.

20 Gardner, Burleigh B. and Levy, Sidney J., “The Product and the Brand,” Harvard Business Review (March–April 1955): 3339.

21 Mannin, Ethel, Sounding Brass (London, 1937), 97.

22 Hilton, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain, 79–136; LeMahieu, D. L., A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars (Oxford, 1998), 160–65; Nevett, Advertising in Britain, 153–56, 160–68; Robertson, Nicole, The Co-operative Movement and Communities in Britain, 1914–1960: Minding Their Own Business (Farnham, 2010), 4572; Stefan Schwarzkopf, “Respectable Persuaders: The Advertising Industry and British Society, 1900–1939” (PhD diss., Birkbeck College, 2008). See also Leavis, F. R. and Thompson, Denys, Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness (London, 1933); “Over 300 Advertising Men Sign the Convention Creed,” Advertiser's Weekly, 14 November 1924, 267–69.

23 Loeb, Lori Anne, Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women (Oxford, 1994).

24 Hilton, Matthew, “Advertising the Modernist Aesthetic of the Marketplace? The Cultural Relationship between the Tobacco Manufacturer and the ‘Mass’ of Consumers in Britain, 1870–1940,” in Meanings of Modernity: Britain from the Late-Victorian Era to World War II, ed. Daunton, Martin and Rieger, Bernhard (Oxford, 2001), 4569.

25 C. Thompson Walker, “Press Advertising in 1922,” Advertiser's Weekly, 19 January 1923, 84; Minns, Oliver A., What You Should Know about Advertising (London, 1922), 103.

26 “Carlton Work Has but One Duty—It Must Sell Something” (advertisement), Advertiser's Weekly, 15 August 1924, 464–65; “Personality in Advertising” (advertisement), Advertiser's Weekly, 5 September 1924, 569.

27 H. Wentworth James, “‘Pretty’ Advertising v. Mannikins,” Advertiser's Weekly, 6 April 1923, 10.

28 Lockwood, R. Bigelow, Industrial Advertising Copy (London, 1929), 199.

29 Thompson, J. Walter, Things to Know about Trademarks (New York, 1911), 45.

30 Russell, Thomas, Commercial Advertising: Six Lectures at the London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London), Lent Term 1919 (London, 1919), 164.

31 Ibid., 138.

32 Miller, Constance E., How to Write Advertisements (London, 1924), 209.

33 deCordova, Richard, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana, 1990).

34 Miller, How to Write Advertisements, 210.

35 Taylor, James, “‘A Fascinating Show for John Citizen and His Wife’: Advertising Exhibitions in Early Twentieth-Century London,” Journal of Social History 51, no. 4 (July 2018): 899927.

36 “Along Shop Window Street, and the Features that ‘Fetched’ the Public,” Advertiser's Weekly, 22 July 1927, 274–75.

37 Saler, Michael, “‘Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes’: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity, c.1890–c.1940,” Historical Journal 46, no. 3 (September 2003): 599622.

38 “The Value of the Advertising Character,” Advertiser's Weekly, 10 July 1923, 145–6, at 145.

39 Dyer, Richard, Stars, new ed. (London, 1998), 4344.

40 See Dyhouse, Carol, Glamour: Women, History, Feminism (London, 2010), 3598; Fowler, David, The First Teenagers: The Lifestyle of Young Wage-Earners in Interwar Britain (London, 1996); Hiley, Nicholas, “‘Let's Go to the Pictures’: The British Cinema Audience in the 1920s and 1930s,” Journal of Popular British Cinema 2 (1999): 4045; Kuhn, Annette, “Memories of Cinema-Going in the 1930s,” Journal of Popular British Cinema 2 (1999): 100–20; Stacey, Jackie, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (London, 1994); Tebbutt, Melanie, Being Boys: Youth, Leisure and Identity in the Inter-War Years (Manchester, 2012). See also the testimonies of film fans collected in Mayer's, J. P. Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London, 1946).

41 On the birth of the Cocoa Nibs, see Fitzgerald, Rowntree and the Marketing Revolution, 139–41.

42 “Rowntree Annual Advertising Report (1919–20),” 79, HAT 21/286, David Lamb Rowntree Collection, History of Advertising Trust.

43 “Ad. News in Brief,” Advertiser's Weekly, 19 January 1923, 76.

44 Royds, George S., Brasstacks: The Case for Sanity in Advertising (London, 1933), 65. Mr. F. Tucker of Fry's & Sons, Ltd. also gauged the success of his firm's “Fry's Girl” in this way; see Advertiser's Weekly, 21 August 1925, 312.

45 Warner, Michael, Publics and Counterpublics (New York, 2002), 65124.

46 “The Pageant of Publicity,” Advertiser's Weekly, 30 November 1920, 328.

47 Barrington Hooper, “The Great Pageant of Publicity: When and Where to See the Parade of Big Figures in British Advertising,” Advertiser's Weekly, 26 November 1920, 273.

48 “Mile of Mirth,” Daily Mail (London), 29 November 1920, 10.

49 R. H. Currington, “The Practical Side,” Advertiser's Weekly, 3 December 1920, 361.

50 Taylor, “‘A Fascinating Show,’” 906.

51 “£2000 for Naming the Famous Rowntree's Cocoa Nibs” (advertisement), Daily Mirror (London), 13 September 1923.

52 “Results: Rowntree's Cocoa” (advertisement), Daily Mirror (London), 5 December 1923, 13.

53 “Fry's Girl Name Competition,” Advertiser's Weekly, 11 April 1924, 65.

54 See Bowlby, Rachel, Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping (London, 2000); Nava, Mica, “Modernity Tamed? Women Shoppers and the Rationalization of Consumption in the Interwar Period,” in All the World and Her Husband: Women in Twentieth-Century Consumer Culture, ed. Andrews, Maggie and Talbot, Mary M. (London, 2000), 2664; Winship, Janice, “Culture of Restraint: The British Chain Store, 1920–1939,” in Commercial Cultures: Economies, Practices, Spaces, ed. Jackson, Peter et al. (Oxford, 2000), 1534.

55 Russell, Gilbert, Nuntius: Advertising and Its Future (London, 1926), 9; emphasis in original. See also Higham, Charles, Advertising: Its Use and Abuse (London, 1925), 23.

56 Russell, Gilbert, Advertisement Writing (London, 1927), 54. For a similar claim, see Russell, Thomas, “The Basic Principles of Successful Advertising,” in What I Know about Advertising, ed. Lawrence, T. B. (London, 1921), 329.

57 Penguin, “Exploiting Public Interest in the Election,” Advertiser's Weekly, 24 November 1922, 634–36.

58 “Election Result, Rowntree's Top of the Poll” (advertisement), Daily Mirror (London), 16 November 1922, 12. Emphasis in original.

59 Leslie Lewis, “How Mustard Found Its Way into Everybody's Mouth,” Advertiser's Weekly, 10 December 1926, 397; “Ad. News in Brief,” Advertiser's Weekly, 31 December 1926, 542.

60 Davies, Jim, The Book of Guinness Advertising (London, 1998), 36.

61 Hilliard, To Exercise Our Talents; James, Robert, Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 1930–9: A Round of Cheap Diversions (Manchester, 2010), 2728.; McAleer, Joseph, Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain, 1914–1950 (Oxford, 1992); Rose, Jonathan, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven, 2010).

62 Moody, Nickianne, “Fashionable Design and Good Service: The Spinster Librarians at Boots Booklovers Library,” in Gendering Library History, ed. Kerslake, Evelyn and Moody, Nickianne (Liverpool, 2000), 131–44.

63 Hilliard, Christopher, “The Twopenny Library: The Book Trade, Working-Class Readers, and ‘Middlebrow’ Novels in Britain, 1930–42,” Twentieth Century British History 25, no. 2 (June 2014): 199220; James, Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 27–28.

64 Joicey, Nicholas, “A Paperback Guide to Progress: Penguin Books 1935–c.1951,” Twentieth Century British History 4, no. 1 (January 1993): 2556; Lewis, Penguin Special, 89–91, 98–100; McCleery, “The Return of the Publisher to Book History,” 161–85.

65 Allen Lane, “All about the Penguin Books,” Bookseller, 22 May 1935: 497.

66 Lewis, Penguin Special, 99–100; McCleery, “Return of the Publisher,” 168. See also Seaton, Paul, A Sixpenny Romance: Celebrating a Century of Value at Woolworths (London, 2009), 73.

67 There is some dispute about the number of sales needed to recover production costs. In 1937, the packaging journal Shelf Appeal set the figure at between fourteen thousand and fifteen thousand. Jeremy Lewis, drawing on Penguin's own publicity, sets the figure at fifty thousand. See “9,000,000 Crypt-Hatched Penguins,” Shelf Appeal (August 1937): 48–52, at 48; Lewis, Penguin Special, 106.

68 Chibnall, Steve, “Pulp versus Penguins: Paperbacks Go to War,” in War Culture: Social Change and Changing Experience in World War Two, ed. Kirkham, Pat and Thoms, David (London, 1995), 131149, at 132; Hilliard, Christopher, “Popular Reading and Social Investigation in Britain, 1850s–1940s,” Historical Journal 57, no. 1 (March 2014): 247–71; James, Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 47–53, 66–78.

69 Baines, Penguin by Design, 13, 18–23; Hare, “Creation Myths.”

70 Lane, “Penguins and Pelicans,” 42.

71 Feely, “Karl Marx, Capital, and Radical Book Cultures in Britain,” 123–30.

72 Lane, “Penguins and Pelicans,” 42; my emphasis.

73 “The Surprising Story of the ‘Penguins,’” Recorder, 1 February 1947, in Scrapbook (1930–1954), DM1294/1/3, Penguin Archive, University of Bristol Library Special Collections.

74 “The Chill of Uniformity,” Bookseller, 24 November 1937, in Scrapbook (1935–9), Penguin Archive.

75 W. E. Hill, “A Bookseller Defends the Sixpennies: A Paper Read at the Buxton Conference,” Bookseller, 16 June 1939: 880–881, at 881.

76 Mass-Observation, TC Reading Habits, 20/2/B, MOA.

77 Mass-Observation, TC Reading Habits, 20/1/D, response no. 4, MOA.

78 Ibid., response no. 33.

79 Cited in Mass-Observation, “Books and the Public,” February 1944, FR 2018, p. 135, MOA; my emphasis.

80 Mass-Observation, “Penguins,” 1937, TC Reading Habits, 20/1/A, p. 1, MOA.

81 “Petrel” (bookseller), cited in Hill, “A Bookseller Defends the Sixpennies,” 880.

82 Mass-Observation, “Report on Penguin World,” 98.

83 “Prizes for Penguins,” Bookseller, 8 April 1936, 352; “Make Hay While the Sun Shines: Penguin's Great Summer Sales Drive” (advertisement), National Newsagent, Bookseller and Stationer, 23 May 1936, 1. Window-dressing competitions by mass manufacturers had been common since before the First World War. They focused customers’ attention on the product and, when the winning photographs were published, provided templates for other shopkeepers to emulate. See Lomax, Susan, “The View from the Shop: Window Display, the Shopper and the Formulation of Theory,” in Cultures of Selling: Perspectives on Consumption and Society since 1700, ed. Benson, John and Ugolini, Laura (Aldershot, 2006), 265291, at 271.

84 “9,000,000 Crypt-Hatched Penguins,” 52.

85 Burt, Jonathan, “Violent Health and the Moving Image: The London Zoo and Monkey Hill,” in Animals in Human History: The Mirror of Nature and Culture, ed. Henniger-Voss, Mary (Rochester, 2002), 258–92.

86 Allan, John, Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the Tradition of Progress (London, 2012), 142. See also Steiner, Hadas A., “For the Birds,” Grey Room 13 (Fall 2003): 531.

87 Allan, Berthold Lubetkin, esp. 134–35; Anker, Peder, “The Bauhaus of Nature,” Modernism/Modernity 12, no. 2 (April 2005): 229–51; Gruffudd, Pyrs, “Biological Cultivation: Lubetkin's Modernism at London Zoo in the 1930s,” in Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Animal-Human Relations, ed. Philo, Chris and Wilbert, Chris (London, 2000), 223–41.

88 “Picture Gallery: The Penguins on Parade,” Daily Mail, 8 December 1935, 16; “A ‘Blue-Water School’ of Penguins: The New ‘Zoo’ Pond,” Illustrated London News, 30 June 1934, 1061; “15 O'Clock Is Feeding Time,” Daily Mirror (London), 26 May 1934, 13. For a longer history of penguin anthropomorphism, see Martin, Stephen, Penguin (London, 2009).

89 In 1937, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell (who, as secretary of the Zoological Society of London, had commissioned Lubetkin's Penguin Pond) briefly served as an advisory editor for the new Pelican series. In 1940, Penguin reprinted his monograph, The Childhood of Animals. Chalmers Mitchell's successor at the Zoo, Julian Huxley, also contributed one of the earliest Pelicans with his Essays in Popular Science (London, 1937).

90 Lubetkin recounts this story (and his refusal) in Allan, Berthold Lubetkin, 249. Press reports frequently mentioned Lane's plans for a penguin pond, although they refrained from mentioning London Zoo by name. See News Chronicle (London), 7 October 1937; “Real Romance: How the Penguins Came to Harmondsworth,” Middlesex Advertiser, 19 November 1937; “A Book Warehouse,” Builder, 25 March 1938.

91 Bookseller, 9 December 1936, in Scrapbook (1935–9), Penguin Archive.

92 Mass-Observation, “Books and the Public,” July 1942, 145–46, FR 1332, MOA; emphasis in the original.

93 Mass-Observation, “Report on Penguin World,” 91, MOA.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed