Dime Novels

views updated May 14 2018


The subject of scorn by moralists in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth, "dime novel" was originally a brand name, but as has often been true of trademarks in America, it became a generic term and was soon applied to any work of sensational fiction despite the cover price. The publisher Irwin P. Beadle & Co. named its series of inexpensive storybooks Beadle's Dime Novels, and the name stuck. Beadle's first novel, Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1860) by Ann Sophia Stephens (1813–1886), established early in the popular mind the western frontier of the United States as the paradigmatic theme of the dime novel despite the fact that the books covered a multitude of themes: mystery and detective stories, school and sports stories, comic stories, sea stories (including pirates), love stories (a very popular category), and science fiction (principally stories of boy inventors). There were also stories of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and of slaves as in Metta Victor's Maum Guinea and Her Plantation "Children" (1861), which sold more than 100,000 copies in short order and was translated into several languages. Abraham Lincoln pronounced it "as absorbing as Uncle Tom's Cabin" (Harvey, p. 39). For many readers the best of the dime novels were the first ones, those published by Beadle & Co. and its successor, Beadle & Adams, and they sold by the millions.

With such success competition is never far behind. A former employee at Beadle, George Munro, along with his brother Norman L. Munro, the sensational Frank Tousey, and Street & Smith, soon joined Beadle as major publishers of dime novels. The early books were small sextodecimo volumes of a hundred or so pages and emphasized recurring authors over continuing characters. In the 1870s the ten-cent and five-cent weeklies introduced the concept of continuing characters with the stories of Dick Talbot, Deadwood Dick, Buffalo Bill, and others. When mystery and detective stories became popular, the recurring heroes included Old Sleuth, Old Cap. Collier, Old King Brady, Joe Phenix, and the incomparable Nick Carter.

At first the readership consisted of adults, but by the 1870s publications designed to appeal to younger readers, primarily male, were common and story papers such as Frank Tousey's Boys of New York and Norman L. Munro's Golden Hours published serials and short stories specifically for the youth market. The five-cent weeklies were either anthologies of stories in various categories (travel and exploration, frontier and western, mystery and detective) or contained the continuing adventures of an individual hero as in the weekly Diamond Dick Library.

Public reaction to dime novels was mixed. Early critics welcomed the concept behind Beadle's "dollar book for a dime" (see Johannsen 1:31), which placed literature within the reach of the poorest reader and thus encouraged reading. Later critics might question the amount of violence but seldom the language; curses in the text were often represented by dashes. Some critics blamed the dime novel for leading boys astray, the same criticism that was leveled at movies, radio, and comic books during a later generation. When the dime novels and story papers ceased publication around 1915, nostalgia replaced criticism and collectors prized copies rescued from the trash. In 1922 the New York Public Library mounted an exhibit of dime novels, primarily Beadles from the collection given to the institution by Dr. Frank P. O'Brien. The dime novel has long been the subject of scholarly attention.


According to Daryl Jones in The Dime Novel Western (1978), there were six basic heroes: the backwoodsman, the miner, the outlaw, the plainsman, the cowboy, and the rancher. Many figures in the dime novel western belonged to more than one category. The backwoodsman served as guide to parties traveling through the new country in emulation of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking. Edward S. Ellis's Seth Jones (in the 1860 novel Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier) established the formula within the dime novel. Oll Coomes's Old Kit Bandy was a variant of the type, serving as both guide and comic relief. So popular was Deadwood Dick between 1877 and 1885, the year his creator Edward L. Wheeler died, that the publisher created a successor, Deadwood Dick Jr. (no blood relative). The writer of most of the new stories was Jesse C. Cowdrick, author of the Broadway Billy stories, who used Wheeler's name as a pseudonym. Deadwood Dick had no basis in fact, despite claims put forth to identify any number of individuals as the original of the character, while Calamity Jane, his companion in adventure, bore no resemblance to the historical figure either in appearance or in characteristics. They were creatures of the imagination.

Buffalo Bill, on the other hand, had a factual basis in William F. Cody (1846–1917), though the dime novel character was a romanticized version of the scout and showman of history. He was introduced to the public in 1869 by Edward Zane Carroll Judson (1823–1886, better known by his pen name Ned Buntline) in the serial Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men in Street & Smith's New York Weekly. Despite writing two more Buffalo Bill serials for Street & Smith, inserting the character as a secondary figure in a third serial, and writing a stage play, Scouts of the Prairies (1872), Buntline wrote only one additional story about the scout, a serial for Beadle & Adams in 1885. Apparently not interested in maintaining the franchise, Buntline stepped aside and allowed Colonel Prentiss Ingraham (1843–1904) to continue the presentation of Cody's adventures to an eager public. When Ingraham died in 1904, having written eighty Buffalo Bill stories for Beadle & Adams and forty-eight for Street & Smith, other writers provided new stories until 1912. As portrayed by Buntline, Buffalo Bill was part backwoodsman, part prospector, and part plainsman with a bit of Native American as far as his skill at following a trail was concerned. Little in the dime novels was based on anything Buffalo Bill accomplished in real life; rather his exploits were what the public expected of such a legendary figure. When Buffalo Bill established his Wild West Show in the 1880s the blend of fact and fiction was complete. His costume in the arena and his costume in the cover illustrations became the same.

Albert W. Aiken's Dick Talbot preceded Deadwood Dick in print by six years and combined the abilities of the gambler, the road agent, and the miner with those of the rancher. In addition Talbot had the traditional mysterious past (which he had left behind him in the east) of many dime novel heroes. A recurring theme in the series was Talbot's wooing, winning, and losing (sometimes to death) many a young lady, a condition of which he is painfully aware. Richard Wade, frontier lawman, miner, and cowboy hero, was better known as Diamond Dick from the sparkling diamonds that decorated his clothes and the diamond sights on his revolvers. The identification with the miner came from the silver mine he inherited. He was based in part on the medicine show entertainer George McClellan, nicknamed "Diamond Dick." Wade was unique among dime novel heroes in having a son, Bertie, a blood relation, who traveled with him. Eventually the elder Wade retired and his son, known as Diamond Dick Jr., carried on the tradition of righting wrongs throughout the West. Other western heroes, such as Ted Strong and Young Wild West, fit the model of heroes as cowboys and ranchers and operated in the twentieth century driving vintage automobiles and riding horses. Young Wild West ended his adventurous career on the battlefields of Europe in the First World War.


Where the dime novel western borrowed characters and themes from Cooper, the detective story drew on the recorded exploits of the legendary Allan Pinkerton (1819–1884) and the men of his detective agency. The earliest detective serial in a story paper was probably the novelized version of Tom Taylor's play The Ticket of Leave Man, which appeared in the weekly Flag of Our Union in 1865. This was followed by Kenward Philp's "The Bowery Detective" in the New York Fireside Companion in 1870. But the first detective hero to appear in a series of stories was Old Sleuth, the creation of Harlan Page Halsey, in the same story paper two years later in 1872. In time the stories were signed by Old Sleuth as well, so there was an instant recognition that they were detective stories. In the first Old Sleuth story, the hero was a young man masquerading as an older one, a convention that was not maintained. A decade later the first publication specializing in detective fiction appeared, Norman Munro's Old Cap. Collier Library (1883), followed a few weeks later by Frank Tousey's New York Detective Library. Both were anthologies of stories about a variety of detectives. The first weekly publication to feature the continuing adventures of a single detective was the Nick Carter Library, which began in 1891.

The Pinkerton model for the detective was a man or woman who was the best in his or her profession, one to whom the official police could turn in time of crisis. He or she borrowed the skills of the hunter when tracking a suspect and thus was little different from the heroes of Cooper. Questioning the client and various suspects was accompanied by a visit to the scene of the crime. The detective was often layers deep in disguise and solved crimes as much by diligent eavesdropping incognito as by scientific deduction. The type of crime varied, though murder was prominent. While readers were allowed to observe the detective at work, there was little opportunity to match wits with the detective. The solution often depended on the detective gaining an understanding of the histories of the characters (victim and suspects), and in this the works of French novelist Émile Gaboriau (1832–1873) served as models. After the Sherlock Holmes stories became popular in 1891, many writers emulated them.

Traditionally the dime novel detective was old and wise and the name sometimes reflected this, often with tongue in cheek: Old Search, Old Hawkeye, Old Neverfail, Old Bull's Eye, Old Spicer. In addition there were a number of women detectives, some of whom served as assistants to the hero (e.g., Ida Jones in the Nick Carter stories), others who worked on their own (e.g., Lady Kate Edwards in the Old Sleuth Library). The geriatric sleuth was eventually replaced by a series of younger men who were the equal of any predecessors. Nick Carter led the way as a youthful man in charge of an agency of sleuths with whom the boy readers could more readily identify and who solved mysteries for kings and presidents in a manner that was the envy of his readers. He competed with, but did not entirely replace, the western hero in the marketplace.


The boarding school story made famous in England by Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days (1857) was represented in the dime novels largely by stories reprinted from British sources. The Jack Harkaway series by Bracebridge Hemyng that began as stories set in a British boarding school continued as accounts of Harkaway's globetrotting adventures. The majority of the sports stories in dime novels were set in boarding schools or colleges and universities with the sport taking precedence over academic studies. The greatest and most popular school and sports hero was Frank Merriwell of Yale, the creation of Gilbert Patten writing as Burt L. Standish. With his skill at saving damsels in distress (one of whom he eventually married), winning at every sport he played, traveling to the far corners of the world, and gathering around him a coterie of friends who would die for him, he was indeed the idol of American youth. Beginning in 1896, Merriwell's regular adventures in Street & Smith's Tip Top Weekly were the staple of many a boy's library. The stories were kept in print for four decades. Merriwell had many imitators (Jack Lightfoot, Frank Manley, Fred Fearnot, Jack Standfast) but no equals.


While a variety of stories could be called prototypes of science fiction, most involved some form of exotic travel by means of hot air balloon or fast land craft, in emulation of Jules Verne. Frank Tousey had a monopoly on these in the stories of the boy inventors Frank Reade Jr. and Jack Wright who filled the skies with imaginative airships and the seas with fantastic submersibles. The majority of the stories in both series was the work of one man, Luis Senarens (1865–1939), writing under the unimaginative pseudonym "Noname." The Frank Reade and Jack Wright stories began appearing in the 1870s in the story papers and were collected in the five-cent weeklies before disappearing from the newsstands in the onslaught of the new pulp magazines.


Dime novel publishers succeeded by utilizing the latest technology in papermaking, printing, and distribution to supply a newly literate market with inexpensive reading matter. Early criticism of dime novels usually came in the form of editorials that derided them as so much immoral sensationalism or blamed juvenile delinquency on the reading of cheap fiction. One famous case in 1874 involved Jesse Pomeroy, a fourteen-year-old who murdered two children. According to Edmund Pearson in Dime Novels (p. 93) the prosecution suggested he might have been led to his crimes by the reading of "cheap 'literature of the dime novel type.'" But Pomeroy denied ever having read a dime novel in his life. There were a number of rebuttals to these attacks. Beadle & Adams produced several editorials in defense of dime novels in the pages of their Saturday Journal and Banner Weekly. They even published a list of the guidelines they provided their authors in which (among other stipulations) they prohibited anything "offensive to good taste" (Pearson, p. 96). After an 1884 editorial in the New York Tribune which claimed boys were encouraged to run away to the Wild West by reading dime novels, Captain Frederick Whittaker, a dime novelist of long standing, wrote an extensive defense of the books. Prentiss Ingraham weighed in on two fronts, a letter to the Mobile Sunday Times in 1888 and a footnote in one of his "Dick Doom" stories for Beadle's Half-Dime Library in 1892 in which he denied the allegations that dime novel writers encouraged boys to leave home.

In the early twentieth century it was a combination of the pulp magazines and the movies that spelled the end of the dime novel. The same price once paid for the dime novel could buy more reading material in the pulp magazine or a vivid adventure on the silver screen. Readers in the 1920s looked back at the dime novels of their youth with nostalgia, remembering the way the slim books had fueled their imaginations, and they built collections of their childhood favorites. As Charles M. Harvey says in his essay for the Atlantic Monthly, "How those heroes and heroines and their allies, their enemies and their doings, cling to the memory across the gulf of years!" (p. 37) The value of the dime novels for later generations is as social history, collections of attitudes and beliefs from a period in American history when the hero always won and the villain received his comeuppance in the last chapter.

See alsoBook Publishing; Mystery and Detective Fiction


Primary Works

Author of "Old Cap. Collier" [William I. James]. "The Seaside Detective; or, Ironclad in the Employ of the Government." Old Cap. Collier Library 4 (12 May 1883).

Buntline, Ned [Edward Zane Carroll Judson]. "Buffalo Bill's Best Shot." Log Cabin Library 127 (20 August 1891).

A Celebrated Author [Frederic Van Rensselaer Dey]. "Nick Carter, Detective. The Solution of a Remarkable Case." Nick Carter Detective Library 1 (8 August 1891).

Moore, Harry [Stephen Angus Douglas Cox]. "The Liberty Boys of ''76'; or, Fighting for Freedom." Liberty Boys of "'76" 1 (4 January 1901).

A New York Detective [Francis W. Doughty]. "Old King Brady, the Sleuth-Hound." New York Detective Library 154 (14 November 1885).

"Noname" [Luis P. Senarens]. "Frank Reade, Jr., and His Queen Clipper of the Clouds. A Thrilling Story of a Wonderful Voyage in the Air." Wide Awake Library 993–994 (1–4 October 1890).

An Old Scout [Cornelius Shea]. "Young Wild West, the Prince of the Saddle." Wild West Weekly 1 (24 October 1902).

Old Sleuth [Harlan Page Halsey]. "Old Sleuth, the Detective; or, The Bay Ridge Mystery." Old Sleuth Library 1 (3 March 1885).

Standish, Burt L. [Gilbert Patten]. "Frank Merriwell at Yale; or, Freshman against Freshman." Tip Top Weekly 40 (16 January 1897).

Wheeler, Edward L. "Deadwood Dick, the Prince of the Road; or, The Black Rider of the Black Hills." Beadle's Half-Dime Library 1 (15 October 1877).

Secondary Works

Cox, J. Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Curti, Merle. "Dime Novels and the American Tradition." Yale Review 26 (1937): 761–778.

Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America. New York: Verso, 1987. Revised edition, 1998.

Harvey, Charles M. "The Dime Novel in American Life." Atlantic Monthly 100 (July 1907): 37–45.

Johannsen, Albert. The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature. 3 vols. Illustrated. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950–1962. The Multimedia Digitization Lab at the Northern Illinois University Libraries in DeKalb has much of Johannsen's text online at http://www.niulib.niu.edu/badndp/bibindex.html. The website includes additional material such as cover art and full texts of numerous dime novels.

Jones, Daryl. The Dime Novel Western. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, Bowling Green State University, 1978.

Noel, Mary. Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

Pearson, Edmund. Dime Novels; or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature. Boston: Little, Brown, 1929.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Stern, Madeleine B., ed. Publishers for Mass Entertainment in Nineteenth Century America. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Sullivan, Larry E., and Lydia Cushman Schurman, eds. Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks. New York: Haworth Press, 1996.

Tebbel, John. A History of Book Publishing in the United States. 4 vols. New York: Bowker, 1972–1981. Volume 1, The Creation of an Industry, 1630–1865, and volume 2, The Expansion of an Industry, 1865–1919, are especially pertinent to the present essay.

J. Randolph Cox

Dime Novels

views updated May 29 2018


The firm of Beadle & Company published the first dime novel, Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, in 1860. The firm (its name would change to Beadle & Adams in 1872) was run by two brothers from Buffalo, New York, Irwin Beadle (1826–1882) and Erastus Beadle (1821–1894), who in 1859 moved to New York City and began publishing brief pocket-size paperback books on a variety of topics, such as Beadle's Dime Debater, Beadle's Dime Base-ball Player, and Beadle's Dime Book of Verses.

In early June 1860 the brothers applied the "dime" formula to fiction and announced Stephens's work under the slogan: "Books for the Million! A Dollar Book for a Dime!" Malaeska was not an original work but had appeared in serial form in the Ladies' Companion; Stephens, far from being an unknown, was a prolific author and well-known literary professional who received $250 from the Beadles for the rights to the novella. The "dime novel," as the format came to be known, caught on rapidly. Malaeska sold ten thousand copies in its first appearance in the Beadle series. Only four months later, Edward Ellis's Seth Jones, issue number 8 in the Beadle Dime Novel Library, would sell 60,000 copies on its first appearance (and almost 500,000 overall), and sales only escalated from there. This success bred imitators. George Munro, who worked for the Beadles, started his own competing firm, and George's brother, Norman Munro, followed suit. While many competitors arose, there were five firms that published dime novels for significant periods of time: Beadle & Company (Beadle & Adams); George Munro; Norman Munro; Frank Tousey; and Street & Smith.


Dime novels did not represent a new type of writing but rather a new kind of book and a new approach to the process of selling and distributing fiction. What was most notable about dime novels was reflected in their name—the low price—which made them accessible to a much wider audience of potential readers. In 1860, when the Beadles published the first dime novel, books of a comparable length, if they were sold in a cloth or leather binding (in the early twenty-first century thought of as "hardcover"), would have cost close to a dollar. Even the inexpensive paper-covered fiction of the 1840s and 1850s, written by popular, sensationalist authors like Ned Buntline, George Lippard, and Justin Jones, most often cost between twenty-five and fifty cents per volume. The Beadles' great innovation was to publish works of fiction in a standard format at regular intervals (roughly every two weeks) at a standard price in a size that made for easy distribution through the mail.

The dime novels of the 1860s were paperbound books of around one hundred pages that measured four by six inches and had covers of colored paper (the most common colors were yellow and salmon). The early issues of the dime novel series did not have cover illustrations, but soon images depicting particularly exciting scenes from the novels were emblazoned on the covers. The low price was a substantial part of dime novels' appeal, as they were affordable to poorer (and younger) readers who would not have been able to buy clothbound books (the average daily wage for a laborer in the 1840s and 1850s was around a dollar a day, but younger workers would not have earned that much). The small size of the dime novels was also part of their appeal, as they were lightweight and extremely portable; their size also made them easy to conceal from disapproving parents and teachers.

Before the Beadles' innovation, cheap publication was a difficult business because the narrow profit margins on cheap books required large volume in order to make the business profitable and it was thought that there were not enough American readers to generate such sales. The issue was not, however, the small number of readers—the United States had one of the highest literacy rates in the world in the nineteenth century—but rather the difficulty and expense of distributing books to them. The Beadles saved money on cheap paper and small type, their production methods capitalized on technological advances in printing, and the absence of an international copyright agreement meant that they could pirate works by European authors without paying for them. But they also took advantage of a loophole in U.S. postal rates: it was prohibitively expensive to send books through the mail, but periodicals—publications that were issued at regular intervals—qualified for a much lower rate. This difference in postage was intended to allow for the easy circulation of newspapers, which were thought to be essential to the political life of the young Republic.

By issuing their dime novels regularly, dime novel publishers qualified for the lower rate that applied to periodicals and thus were able to let the U.S. Postal Service do their distributing for them through the mail. Readers generally paid for a book in advance, then the publisher sent the book out postage due; the buyer paid the postage upon receipt. While capitalizing on postal distribution, Beadle & Company in 1864 also formed a partnership with the nascent American News Company, which distributed dime novels to newsstands and bookstores. (The publishers of dime novels played a cat-and-mouse game with the Postal Service over the question of postage rates over the last half of the nineteenth century, ultimately losing their exemption.) As such, dime novels constitute a particularly useful example for the study of the growth of the mass-culture industry in the United States. Dime novels also offer a useful case for an examination of the creation of literary celebrity; authors such as Ned Buntline (E. Z. C. Judson, 1823–1886) and Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–1899) and characters including Buffalo Bill, Old Sleuth, and Nick Carter gained fame through dime novels (Ned Buntline published his first Buffalo Bill story in 1869).

The original audience for dime novels was adult readers, primarily men, although there would later be dime novel series aimed at female readers. Part of the early success of the genre can be attributed to the market provided by soldiers fighting in the Civil War. Beadle, Munro, and other publishers shipped thousands of dime novels to Union army camps, creating a taste for the novels that persisted after 1865. Over time, however, the audience that came to be most strongly associated with dime novels in the public imagination was boys, prompting periodic panics over the books' "corrupting influence," including Anthony Comstock's crusades in the 1880s. It is likely, though, that early dime novels were read by everyone in the family, as they rarely contained any material that would have been considered morally questionable. Indeed the prominent critic William Everett wrote in the North American Review (1864) of the Beadle publications that they were "without exception . . . unobjectionable morally, whatever fault be found with their literary style and composition. They do not even obscurely pander to vice, or excite the passions" (p. 308). This view would change over time, however, as dime novels changed in physical format, came to be increasingly associated with juvenile readers, and were distributed more often from newsstand sales rather than through the mail. Regardless of the debates about dime novels' morality, they were astonishingly popular. No exact publication records exist for any of the publishers of dime novels, but Everett estimated that in 1864 there were five million dime novels in circulation that had been produced by the Beadle firm alone, not counting the output of its competitors.


It is difficult to characterize dime novels as a distinct genre of literature because the dime novel was primarily an innovation in production, packaging, distribution, and marketing rather than a new literary form. As was the case with Malaeska, many dime novels were texts that had previously been published elsewhere; indeed, Beadle & Adams republished some stories as many as fourteen times, often under different titles or in different series. Many of the early dime novels were westerns, which is what most readers think of when they hear the term "dime novel." Instead of being typical westerns, however, many dime novels of the 1860s were actually American historical adventures in the tradition of James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) and William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870), set not on the high plains of the West but in the forests of the East and the swamps of the South as well as on the high seas (seafaring stories were extremely popular). Because many of the early dime novels were reissues of texts that had previously appeared elsewhere, they tended to deal with historical subjects, particularly the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary periods and the War of 1812. But many of these sensational stories featured more contemporaneous settings, such as California during the gold rush; in Texas, particularly during the years of the Texas Republic and the Mexican-American War; and in the mountain West during the heyday of the fur trade.

The primary literary effect that these novels strove for was excitement, with fights, captures, escapes, and reunions crowded improbably close together, all focused around the exploits of a rugged and always prepared male hero, with multiple plot lines being tied up neatly (but suddenly) in the final chapter. A passage from Edward S. Ellis's Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier (1860), which is set on the frontier of western New York in the 1780s, is indicative of their typical style:

All the savages sprung to their feet, and one held his tomahawk, ready to brain the captive Ina, in case they could not retain her. Another leaped toward Seth, but his surprise was great, when the man in turn sprung nimbly to his feet, and this surprise became unbounded when, doubling himself like a ball, Seth struck him with tremendous force in the stomach, knocking him instantly senseless. Quick as thought, Graham felled the savage standing over Ina, and seizing her in his arms, plunged into the woods, setting up a loud shout at the same instant. The scene now became desperate. Haldidge and Haverland, fired almost to madness, rushed forward, and the former added his own yells to those of the savages. Ten minutes after, not an Indian was in sight. (Brown, p. 231)

Along with such "blood-and-thunder" effects, many dime novels also often incorporated regional dialect, frequently for humorous or satirical effect, in the tradition of the southwestern humorists like Simms and Davy Crockett. Seth Jones, for instance, in the eponymous novel, speaks in typical Yankee dialect when a Mohawk captor takes away his rifle: "I'll lend that to you awhile, provided you return it all right. Mind, you be keerful now, 'cause that ar' gun cost something down in New Hampshire" (Brown, p. 199).

Given their subject matter and setting, dime novels are useful sources for examining nineteenth-century attitudes about the wilderness and encroaching civilization, the frontier, masculinity and individualism, and race and ethnicity, particularly within the context of westward expansion. (Later dime novels were more likely to be set in cities, to have detectives as heroes rather than trappers or Texas Rangers, and to reflect current news events in their plots.) With their sensational plots, dime novels played a large role in shaping a popular image of the western frontier as a place of lawlessness and violence and provided a popular and sensationalized mass cultural account of the process of Manifest Destiny.

See alsoBook Publishing; Literacy; Literary Marketplace; Publishers


Primary Works

Brown, Bill, ed. Reading the West: An Anthology of DimeWesterns. Boston: Bedford, 1997.

"Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls." http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/dp/pennies/home.html.

Secondary Works

Cox, J. Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels andWorking-Class Culture in America. London and New York: Verso, 1987.

Everett, William. "Critical Notices: Beadle's Dime Books." North American Review (July 1864): 303–309.

Johannsen, Albert. The House of Beadle and Adams and ItsDime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature. 3 vols. Foreword by John T. McIntyre. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950–1962. Available at http://www.niulib.niu.edu/badndp/bibindex.html.

Noel, Mary. Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

Pearson, Edmund Lester. Dime Novels; or, Following an OldTrail in Popular Literature. Boston: Little, Brown, 1929.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West asSymbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Streeby, Shelley. American Sensations: Class, Empire, and theProduction of Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Sullivan, Larry E., and Lydia Cushman Schurman, eds. Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks. New York: Haworth, 1996.

Paul J. Erickson

Dime Novels

views updated May 18 2018

Dime Novels

A popular form of literary entertainment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dime novels were works of sensational fiction published in paper-covered booklets, issued at regular intervals, and priced at five to ten cents. Profitable mainstays of the American publishing industry for many years, dime novels gradually waned as pulp magazine consumption increased, and by 1915, motion pictures had replaced dime novels as inexpensive forms of entertainment. Since that time, dime novels have become significant resources for examining the development of American popular culture in that they exemplify early printing methods, serve as rudimentary forms of genre fiction, and reflect aspects of the social history of the United States.

Published in four basic formats between 1860 and 1915, dime novels usually possessed pictorial covers with black-and-white or colored illustrations, ranged in size from four by six inches to eight by 12 inches, and varied in length from 32 to 250 pages. Initially produced for an adult market, early versions detailed life on the American frontier. Later publications, however, featured detective mysteries, adventure stories, and science fiction tales and were primarily read by juveniles.

The idea of producing cheap paper-covered novels in a continuous series was conceived by Irwin P. Beadle. In 1860, Beadle, along with his older brother, Erastus, and Robert Adams, established the publishing firm of Beadle & Adams in New York City and launched Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, as the first entry in a series entitled Beadle's Dime Novels. Achieving success with the publication of this story and others, Beadle & Adams were for a time the principal publishers of dime novels until competitors George P. Munro, his brother Norman L. Munro, Frank Tousey, and Street & Smith began to publish dime novels as well.

Dime novel authors had strict guidelines to follow—stories had to be exciting, entertaining, and moral. Each of the major publishers employed regulars who wrote for a particular series. In some instances, authors published stories for several firms. Prolific contributors to Beadle's Dime Novels (1860-1874) included Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, Mrs. Metta Victor, Edward S. Ellis, Edward L. Wheeler, Philip S. Warne, and Ned Buntline. George P. Munro's Old Sleuth Library (1885-1905) highlighted the detective adventures of Old Sleuth, a pseudonym for Harlan Page Halsey, and other authors. His brother, Norman, published works by W. I. James in the Old Cap Collier Library (1883-1899), another dime-novel detective series. Frank Tousey's small group of authors wrote under so many pseudonyms that the amount of contributors to the Wide Awake Library (1878-1898) appeared greater than it actually was. Street & Smith, as the last major publishing firm to produce dime novels, featured authors Horatio Alger, Jr., Ned Buntline, Gilbert Patten, and Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, among others, in several series between 1883 and 1899. When dime-novel production ceased, most of the once prolific authors faded into obscurity.

Often, characters appearing in dime-novel series were better known than their authors were. Ned Buntline's famous western hero, Buffalo Bill, based on United States scout and performer William Frederick Cody, appeared in numerous publications by Beadle & Adams, Street & Smith, and Frank Tousey. Amateur detective Nick Carter proved to be so popular after his first appearance in The Old Detective's Pupil (1886), that Street & Smith featured his adventures in three different series between 1891 and 1915, The Nick Carter Library, The New Nick Carter Weekly, and Nick Carter Stories. Similarly, the exploits of Deadwood Dick, Kit Carson, Jr., Jesse James, Old Sleuth, Young Wild West, Frank Reade, Jr., Tiger Dick, and Frank Merriwell appeared in more than one dime novel.

Covering a wide variety of subjects, dime novels promoted traditional American values of patriotism, rugged individualism, and moral behavior. Many of the early dime novel stories focused on historical events such as the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and conflicts with Native Americans. Others were set in gold mining camps or towns within the expanding western frontier, and featured gunfighters, villains, and damsels in distress. Reflecting the urbanization of cities, the industrial revolution, and increased transportation modes, subsequent dime novel subjects included circuses, railroad workers, firefighters, sports, science fiction, fantasy, sea or polar explorations, and mysteries with detectives from every walk of life. Moving beyond the borders of America, a few detail adventures in distant places.

In the 1990s, few original dime novels exist outside of libraries and personal collections. Moreover, owing largely to their sheer numbers and past popular appeal, dime novels are seldom considered by literary scholars to be good examples of American literature. Their value as historical artifacts, however, is considerable.

—Marlena E. Bremseth

Further Reading:

Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working Class Culture in America. London, Verso, 1987.

Johannsen, Albert, The House of Beadle & Adams and Its Nickel and Dime Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature. Vol. 1. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

Sullivan, Larry E., and Lydia C. Schurman. Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks. New York, The Haworth Press, Inc., 1996.

Dime Novels

views updated May 14 2018

Dime Novels

Dime novels captivated readers with sensational fictitious stories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Called dime novels because the first examples cost just ten cents, dime novels appeared at regular intervals and told exciting stories of adventure, mystery, and romance. Readers were encouraged to collect and read whole series of novels featuring a favorite hero or a type of adventure. Costs were kept down by printing the novels on low-quality paper, often with drawn illustrations. By 1900, several publishers had entered the market and in their heyday each title could sell millions of copies. The popularity of pulp magazines (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2), radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2), and cinema squeezed dime novels out of the entertainment market by the 1920s. No original titles appeared after that decade.

The first dime novel was Maleska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. It was published in 1860 by Irwin P. Beadle and was a romance set in the American West. Beadle's mass-market dime novels took advantage of the growing number of readers and cheaper printing technology. By the early 1900s, the range of settings for the stories was huge, although the plots were mostly the same. Dime novel subjects included the American West, the Revolutionary War, Native Americans, the circus, the railroad, sports, science fiction, and detective mysteries. Polar exploration was also common.

Dime novels were written to very strict guidelines, often by groups of writers working under the same name. Writers were instructed to make them exciting, entertaining, and moral. Even so, these tales of violence and passion were thought by some to be a corrupting influence on their young readers. These same arguments continued into the twenty-first century against films, cartoons, and pop stars like Eminem (1972–) and Marilyn Manson (1969–). Writers of dime novels included Edward Stratemeyer (1962–1930), who created the girl detective Nancy Drew, and Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), the author of Little Women. Alcott wrote dime novels under the name A. M. Bernard to protect her reputation as a serious novelist.

Because they were printed on cheap paper and because they were seen as disposable, few dime novels exist outside of libraries in the twenty-first century. As literature, dime novels were considered by scholars to have little value. But as historical artifacts, they reveal a great deal about American life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

—Chris Routledge

For More Information

Stanford University Special Collections. "Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls." http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/dp/pennies/home.html (accessed on December 14, 2001).

Sullivan, Larry E., and Lydia Schurman, eds. Pioneers and Passionate Ladies: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks. New York: Haworth Press, 1996.

Dime Novels

views updated May 08 2018


DIME NOVELS, inexpensive, sensational fiction published roughly from 1840 to 1900, began as fiction supplements to newspapers, such as Park Benjamin's New World, that could distribute fiction cheaply under the post office's low newspaper rate. Selling for twelve and one-half cents, Benjamin's "shilling novelettes" declined soon after the post office began to apply the higher book rates to fiction supplements in 1843. In 1845 reduced "book rates" revived cheap fiction, which later claimed national as well as local audiences through the distributor American News Company (1864). The most successful publishers of inexpensive literature, Beadle and Adams, released weekly Beadle's Dime Novels beginning in 1860. Competitors included Thomas and Talbot's Ten Cent Novelettes (1863), George Munro's Ten Cent Novels (1864), and Robert DeWitt's Ten Cent Romances (1867). However, dime novels declined in the 1890s due to the panic of 1893; the development of slick, inexpensive magazines; and the copyright agreement of 1891, which curtailed pirating of European fiction. By 1900 the journal Bookman could proclaim confidently "the extinction of the dime novel."

Although widely remembered as male-oriented, frontier adventure tales, dime novels also included detective stories, thrilling accounts of urban life, and romances aimed at a female audience. Their authors—often newspaper journalists—worked swiftly under tight deadlines and creative limitations. Sometimes multiple authors used the same well-known pseudonym or popular character, both of which remained the intellectual property of the publisher. Nevertheless, publishers did pirate many stories from British papers, and authors themselves frequently derived their plots from current theater productions and news stories.

Young working men and women—both Yankee and ethnic—composed the bulk of dime-novel readership, and publishers aimed such series as Ten-Cent Irish Novels and Die Deutsche Library directly at ethnic audiences. Nationwide circulation and popular appeal mark the dime-novel market as a precursor of late-twentieth-century mass culture. Although condemned and even restricted in their day as "immoral" influences on impressionable youth, by the beginning of the twenty-first century dime novels were remembered nostalgically as wholesome and innocent entertainment.


Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America. New York: Verso, 1987.

Rae SikulaBielakowski

See alsoLiterature: Popular .