- This article is about U.S. novels. For the British versions, see Story papers and Penny Dreadfuls.
Dime novel, though it has a specific meaning, has also became a catch-all term for several different (but related) forms of late 19th century and early 20th century U.S. popular fiction, including “true” dime novels, story papers, five and ten cent weekly libraries, “thick book” reprints and sometimes even early pulp magazines. The term was being used as late as 1940, in the short lived pulp Western Dime Novels. Dime novels are, at least in spirit, the antecedent of today’s mass market paperbacks, comic books, and even television shows and movies based on the dime novel genres. In the modern age, "dime novel" has become a term to describe any quickly-written, lurid potboiler and as such is generally used as a pejorative to describe a sensationalized yet superficial piece of written work.
Origin of term
It is generally agreed that the term originated with the first book in Beadle & Adams Beadle’s Dime Novels
series, Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter
, by Ann S. Stephens
, dated June 9
. The novel was an essential reprint of Stephens's earlier serial that appeared in the Ladies' Companion
magazine in February, March, and April 1839. The dime novels varied in size, even within this first Beadle series, but were roughly 6.5 by 4.25 inches (16.5x10.8cm), with 100 pages. The first 28 were published without a cover illustration, in a salmon colored paper wrapper, but a woodblock print was added with issue 29, and reprints of the first 28 had an illustration added to the cover. Of course, the books were priced at ten cents. This series ran for 321 issues, and established almost all the conventions of the genre, from the lurid and outlandish story to the melodramatic double titling that was used right up to the very end in the 1920s. Most of the stories were frontier tales reprinted from the vast backlog of serials in the story papers and other sources, as well as many originals. As the popularity of dime novels increased, original stories came to be the norm. The books were themselves reprinted many times, sometimes with different covers, and the stories were often further reprinted in different series, and by different publishers.
Beadle’s Dime Novels were immediately popular, owing to an increased literacy in the population around the time of the American Civil War, and by the war’s end there were numerous competitors like George Munro and Robert DeWitt crowding the field, distinguishing their product only by title and the color choice of the paper wrappers. Even Beadle & Adams had their own alternate "brands", such as the Frank Starr line. As a whole, the quality of the fiction was derided by higher brow critics and the term 'dime novel' quickly came to represent any form of cheap, sensational fiction, rather than the specific format.
Adding to the general confusion as to what is or is not a dime novel, many of the series, though similar in design and subject matter, cost ten to fifteen cents. Even Beadle & Adams weighed in with a confusing array of titles in the same salmon colored covers, but at different price points, further muddling the issue. Also, there were a number of ten-cent, paper covered books of the period that featured medieval romance stories, or soap opera-ish tales and it is often hard to draw an exact line between what does and does not fall within the definition of a true dime novel, the division depending in large part on whether you use format, price or style of material for the classification. But just a quick survey of some generally agreed upon series illustrates the diversity: Bunce’s Ten Cent Novels, Brady’s Mercury Stories, Beadle’s Dime Novels, Irwin P. Beadle’s Ten Cent Stories, Munro’s Ten Cent Novels, Dawley’s Ten Penny Novels, Fireside Series, Chaney’s Union Novels, DeWitt’s Ten Cent Romances, Champion Novels, Frank Starr’s American Novels, Ten Cent Novelettes, Richmond’s Sensation Novels, Ten Cent Irish Novels,
In 1874, Beadle & Adams upped the ante by adding the novelty of color to the covers when their New Dime Novels series replaced the flagship title. The New Dime Novels were issued with a dual numbering system on the cover, one continuing the numbering from the first series, and the second and more prominent one indicating the number within the current series, i.e., the first issue was numbered 1 (322). The stories were largely reprints from the first series. Like its predecessor, Beadle’s New Dime Novels ran for 321 issues, until 1885.
Development of the dime novel
As noted, much of the material for the dime novels came from the storypapers, which were weekly, eight page newspaper-like publications, varying in size from tabloid to a full fledged newspaper format, and usually costing five or six cents. They started in the mid 1850s and were immensely popular, some titles running for over fifty years on a weekly schedule. They are perhaps best described as the television of their day, containing a variety of serial stories and articles, with something aimed at each members of the family, and often illustrated profusely with woodcut illustrations. Popular storypapers included The Saturday Journal, Young Men of America, Golden Weekly, Golden Hours, Good News, Happy Days
Although the larger part of the stories stood alone, in the late 1880s series characters began to appear and quickly grew in popularity. The original Frank Reade stories first appeared in Boys of New York. Old Sleuth, appearing in The Fireside Companion story paper beginning in 1872, was the first dime novel detective and began the trend away from the western and frontier stories that dominated the story papers and dime novels up to that time. He was the first character to use the word “sleuth” to denote a detective, the word’s original definition being that of a bloodhound trained to track. And he also is responsible for the popularity of the use of the word “old” in the names of competing dime novel detectives, such as Old Cap Collier, Old Broadbrim, Old King Brady, Old Lightning, Old Ferret and many, many others. Nick Carter first appeared in 1886 in The New York Weekly. All three characters would graduate to their own ten-cent weekly titles within a few years.
In 1873, the house of Beadle & Adams had introduced a new ten-cent format, 9.x 13.25 inches, with only 32 pages and a black and white illustrated cover, with the title New and Old Friends
. It was not a success, but the format was so much cheaper to produce that they tried again in 1877 with The Fireside Library
and Frank Starr’s New York Library
. The first reprinted English love stories, the second contained hardier material but both titles caught on. Publishers were no less eager to follow a new trend then than now. Soon the newsstands were flooded by ten-cent weekly “libraries”. These publications also varied in size, from as small as 7 x 10 inches (The Boy’s Star Library
is an example) to 8.5 x 12 (New York Detective Library
). The Old Cap Collier Library
was issued in both sizes, plus a booklet form. Each issue tended to feature a single story, as opposed to the story papers, and many of them were devoted to single characters. Frontier stories, evolving into westerns, were still popular, but the new vogue tended to urban crime stories. One of the most successful titles, Frank Tousey’s New York Detective Library
eventually came to alternate stories of the James Gang with stories of Old King Brady, detective, and in a rare occurrence in the dime novel world, there were several stories which featured them both, with Old King Brady doggedly on the trail of the vicious gang.
The competition was fierce, and publishers were always looking for an edge. Once again, color came into the fray when Frank Tousey introduced a weekly with brightly color covers in 1896. Street & Smith countered by issuing a smaller format weekly with muted colors Such titles as New Nick Carter Weekly (continuing the original black and white Nick Carter Library), Tip-Top Weekly (introducing Frank Merriwell) and others were 7 x 10 with thirty-two pages of story, but the 8.5 x 11 Tousey format carried the day and Street & Smith, soon followed suit. The price was also dropped to five cents, making the magazines more accessible to children. This would be the last major permutation of the product before it evolved into pulp magazines. Ironically, for many years it has been the nickel weeklies that most people refer to when using the term "dime novel."
The nickel weeklies proved very popular, and their numbers grew quickly. Frank Tousey and Street & Smith dominated the field. Tousey had his “big six” : Work and Win (featuring Fred Fearnot, a serious rival to the soon to be popular Frank Merriwell) Secret Service, Pluck and Luck, Wild West Weekly, Fame and Fortune, and The Liberty Boys of ’76, all of which ran over a thousand weekly issues apiece. Street & Smith had New Nick Carter Weekly, Tip Top Weekly , Buffalo Bill Stories, Jesse James Stories, Brave & Bold Weekly and many others. The Tousey stories were on the whole the more lurid and sensational of the two.
Perhaps the most confusing of all the various formats that are lumped together under the term dime novel are the so-called “thick-book” series, largely published by Street & Smith, J. S. Ogilvie and Arthur Westbrook. These books were published in series, ran roughly 150-200 pages, and were 4.75 x 7 inches, often with color covers on a higher grade stock. They reprinted multiple stories from the five- and ten-cent weeklies, often slightly rewritten to tie the material together.
All dime novel publishers were canny about repurposing material. but Street & Smith made it more of an art form. They developed the practice of publishing four consecutive, related tales of, for example, Nick Carter, in the weekly magazine, then combining the four stories into one edition of the related thick book series, in this instance, the New Magnet Library. The Frank Merriwell stories appeared in the Medal, New Medal and Merriwell Libraries, Buffalo Bill in the Buffalo Bill Library and Far West Library, and so on. What confuses many dealers and new collectors today is that though the thick books were still in print as late as the 1930s, they carry the original copyright date of the story, often as early as the late nineteenth century, leading some to assume they have original dime novels when the books are only distantly related.
End of the dime novel
In 1896, Frank Munsey had converted his juvenile magazine, The Argosy
into a fiction magazine for adults and the first pulp. By the turn of the century, new high-speed printing techniques combined with the cheaper pulp paper allowed him to drop the price from twenty five cents to ten cents, and the magazine really took off. In 1910 Street and Smith converted two of their nickel weeklies, New Tip Top Weekly
and Top Notch Magazine
, into pulps; in 1915, Nick Carter Stories
, itself a replacement for the New Nick Carter Weekly
, morphed into Detective Story Magazine
, and in 1919, New Buffalo Bill Weekly
became Western Story Magazine
. Harry Wolff, the successor in interest to the Frank Tousey titles, continued to reprint many of them up into the mid 1920s, most notably Secret Service, Pluck and Luck, Fame and Fortune
, and Wild West Weekly
. The latter two were purchased by Street & Smith in 1926 and converted into pulp magazines the following year. That effectively ended the reign of the dime novel.
In the late 1940s to the early 1950s, collecting dime novels became very popular, and prices soared. Albert Johannsen
authored an enormous two volume scholarly work, The House of Beadle & Adams
, which is exhaustive in its detail. Even at that time the cheap publications were crumbling into dust and becoming hard to find. William J. Benners
was another of the early historians of the dime novel. He was also a publisher and author. Edward T. LeBlanc
, a longtime editor of the periodical Dime Novel Round-Up, was also an avid collector and bibliographer of the format. Two of the prominent collectors, Charles Bragin and Ralph Cummings, issued a number of reprints of particularly hard to find titles from some of the weekly libraries.
But most of the collectors were men who remembered the stories from childhood, and as they passed on, the craze subsided and dime novels, of all varieties, lost their appeal and are only marginally collected today.
- Cox, J. Randolph, The Dime Novel Companion
- Denning, Michael, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America
- Johanssen, Albert, The House of Beadle & Adams (University of Oklahoma Press, 1950)
- LeBlanc, Edward, ed., The Dime Novel Roundup, multiple issues
- Pearson,Edmund Dime Novels (Boston: Little Brown, 1929)
- Harper's Weekly Cartoon, March 11, 1882, "Our Youth and Youth's Literature from a Chinese Point of View"
- Dime Novels and the Penny Dreadfuls are housed in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at Stanford University Libraries
- The University of South Florida Tampa Library has nearly 9,000 dime novels, of which roughly 10% are catalogued
- Dime Novel Round-Up "A magazine devoted to the collection, preservation and study of old-time dime and nickel novels, popular story papers, series books, and pulp magazines."
- Sweeney Todd and penny dreadfuls
- Library of Congress dime novel collection
- The Albert Johannsen Collection of Dime Novels at Northern Illinois University
- The Edward T. LeBlanc Collection of Dime Novels at Northern Illinois University
- "The Mysteries of London", an 1840s penny dreadful.
- "Fred Fearnot" Dime Novels