Dresser worked as an actor, playwright, songwriter, producer, and music publisher. He composed more than 100 songs on Tin Pan Alley, in New York City. At the peak of his fame, in the 1890s, he was the most popular songwriter in America. He created his own publishing house in 1901 to produce his works.
Despite his fame, he was financially unwise. He gave much of his money away to friends and family, and when his publishing house failed, he was left destitute. He died, aged 49, in New York City.
His birthplace is maintained at Henry Fairbanks Park in Terre Haute by the Vigo County Historical Society. Dresser Drive, a street in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Anderson, Indiana, is named for him, as is the Dresser Bridge, which crosses the Wabash River, near Attica, Indiana.
Theodore Dreiser wrote an account of his brother's life in his book Twelve Men, published in 1919. A recent academic study of Dresser's life, On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away: The Life and Music of Paul Dresser by Clayton W. Henderson, was published by the Indiana Historical Society Press in 2003.