Saturday, November 26, 2011


Dime Novels led to
western romance
By Caroline Clemmons

How many times have your heard the term dime novel? Do you think of the frontier west, or of detective stories?

Dime novel, though it has a specific meaning, has also become 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. Dime novels provided easily understood entertainment for anyone who could read, and at an affordable price. A dime would have been a sizable investment in the mid 19th century, but a novel can be re-read many times and/or traded with another family.

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 derisive term to describe a sensationalized yet superficial piece of written work.

A Beadles'
Dime Novels
Generally, historians agree that the term dime novel originated with the first book in Beadle & Adam's Beadle’s Dime Novels series, MALEASKA, THE INDIAN WIFE OF THE WHITE HUNTER, by Ann S. Stephens, dated June 9, 1860. Aha! A female author breaking in a new tradition!

The novel was essentially a 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, 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 (Works for me!) 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.

Dime novels and papers
Beadle’s Dime Novels were immediately popular among young, working-class audiences, owing to an increased literacy rate around the time of the American Civil War. 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.

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.

The New Dime Novel Series introduced color covers, but reprinted stories from the original series. In 1874, Beadle & Adams, through the added novelty of color to the covers (see photo in first paragraph above), 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. The stories were largely reprints from the first series. Like its predecessor, Beadle’s New Dime Novels ran for 321 issues, until 1885.

As noted, much of the material for the dime novels came from the story papers, 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 1850’s 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 story papers 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.

Black and
white version
In 1873, the house of Beadle & Adams had introduced a new ten-cent format, 9 by 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. The Fireside Library, the first reprinted English love stories, and Frank Starr’s New York Library, which contained hardier material. 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". 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 (Yay!), 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.

As now, 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 colored 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. And wasn't there a series with a hero named Jack Armstrong?

Is he stealing
her jewels  or
comforting her?
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 by 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.  I have one of the thick book novels handed down in my family. Unfortunately, it’s in tatters now, but I’ve saved it anyway. I wish I knew more about the history of the specific book I have.

All dime novel publishers were canny about repurposing material, but Street & Smith made it more of an art form. Hmmm, does this remind you of one or two of today's publishers? The dime novel publishers 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.

*Note: 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.

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.

Julie Garwood's
Dime novels endeared western lore to the nation, even spreading throughout the world. Read Julie Garwood’s PRINCE CHARMING (one of my all-time favorite novels) for a look at how they spread to the UK and a young English woman took them to heart. Who knew her fascination would prepare her for the ordeal to come when she must save her young niece and nephew?

People followed the exploits of legendary heroes in the West. Talk about literary license? The fact that most of the tales were pure drivel didn’t matter a whit to their eager audience. The lure was cast, and many took the bait and headed to America’s West.

But what began my personal love of the West? In the evenings, my dad often told stories of his family coming to Texas after the Civil War. I couldn’t hear enough of those tales. Even after I’d memorized them, I urged him to retell each one. And guess who sneaked peaks at his detective magazines when he was at work?

Roy Rogers
Next came the movies: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lone Ranger, Hoppalong Cassidy. Have I forgotten any? Personally, I wanted to ride the range with Roy, saving the West from the bank robbers and rustlers I was certain plagued the land. My family and I watched "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," "Rifleman," "Maverick," and others and never tired of them. Then life intervened, as it did for all would-be cowgirls and cowboys. 

 As an adult, I discovered Louis L’Amour. Don’t hate me, but you can have Kathleen Woodiwiss’ books. You gasp, and I hope you’re not gathering tar and feathers! I met her once at a Houston writer’s conference and I readily admit she was a lovely person and we owe her a huge debt for popularizing historical romance novels. As well, I love the books of many other western romance authors, and especially the writers who are members of this blog!

 However, Louis L’Amour is my author hero--as you learned if you read my post a few months ago. I’ve read each of his books at least twice, and several of them too many times to count. FALLON is my personal favorite: what woman can resist a man who thinks he’s bad but is actually a good, hard working, clever man protective of others?

Cattle drive
 I usually choose to write about 1870-1890 and the time of the Texas cattle drives. Yeehaw! Yes, I also write contemporary cowboys, but none are more appealing to me than those of the late 19th century. So many things fascinate me about this time period. Would I have wanted to live then instead of now? Are you crazy? I like my current creature comforts, thank you, but I love reading and writing about that earlier time.

In that time period, the Civil War and Reconstruction were over, yet law and order was far from established. Men--and women--were often isolated and had to defend themselves and their families. If there was an area lawman, he was often too far away to offer immediate help.

When the Civil War was over, men returned home (if they still had one). In Texas and a few other states, many unbranded cattle had bred during the war and ran wild. An industrious man could gather these and place his own brand on them, then drive them to market in Kansas. According to T. H. Fehrenback in his book LONE STAR: A HISTORY OF TEXAS AND THE TEXANS, cattle sold for two dollars a head in Texas in 1875, but brought ten dollars a head in Kansas. Since cowboys made the same wage per month and received the same food regardless of where they rode, it cost no more for a rancher to have his ranch hands drive cattle to market. Fortunes were built during this time!

by Frederick Remington
 The wealth didn’t come without cost. Danger lurked everywhere in the West, but on the trail hazards multiplied. Indians, rustlers posing as Indians, rustlers posing as law men, and a plethora of bad men wanted the benefit of others’ hard work.

Then there were the natural disasters: swollen rivers, lightning storms, and stampedes. Plus Texas cattle sometimes carried tick fever and threatened to infect cattle in other states. Cattlemen from the intervening areas crusaded to block Texas cattle from crossing into their area, and it’s no wonder, is it? The astonishing fact is that any cattle made it to market.

Couple riding
at sunset
  Yes, you say, but how can it be a romance when there were no women on cattle drives. You’re right, you’re so right. Cowboys are a superstitious lot, and they believed women on a drive brought bad luck. In that way, cattle drives are far from romantic.

The Most Unsuitable Wife
Available now at
Amazon Kindle
and Smashwords

If you’ve read my book THE MOST UNSUITABLE WIFE (available for only 99 cents from Amazon Kindle), you learned that wives were not invited on a cattle drive. Definitely! No, it’s not the actual cattle drive that appeals to me, but the era. A young man with nothing could homestead land, gather unbranded cattle or buy a few head, and create a small ranch. With hard work and perseverance, he could expand. Of course, then he’d need a wife to share his life. They’d face trouble--it always came--and stand side by side to triumph. Well, that’s the way it happens in my novels.

Brides' memoirs,
by Chris Enss
Women from areas where most young men had died in the Civil War didn’t have to remain spinsters. They could travel West and marry, sometimes via mail-order arrangements. How many mail-order western romances have your read? I’ve read too many to count, but I still love them. There were wagon trains heading West (love those wagon train romances, too!), then stages and locomotives. By traveling West, a single woman had an opportunity for a family of her own. I think I’d have risked it, wouldn’t you?

Reading about people who adapt to new circumstances, meet obstacles they’d never imagined, and triumph while finding a soul mate is very romantic. Who wouldn’t love a tale like that?

Hand me that book by Celia Yeary, would you? Yes, the one that was a finalist for The Romance Reviews Best Books of 2010, TEXAS TRUE. Sure I've read it, but I reread favorites, don't you? I’m in the mood to read more about romance under western skies. If you share that mood, why not try a book by one of the Sweethearts of the West authors?


  1. Well, I'm glad I read all the way to the end! Thanks for the plug, dearheart.
    I laughed about "dime novels" being potboiler of lurid trash, or something like that. My 99cent westerns are called dime novels in Rebecca Vickery's Western Trail Blazers.I've used that term to promote the first, maybe I'd better not!
    Oh, I love those old covers. Fascinating, weren't they? I wonder is the writing was stiff and dramatic? It seems I've read parts of one in a novel or somewhere..and the wording sounded like a melodrama. I'm sure they were.
    Thanks so much for this thorough piece about part of our American Culture.

  2. Hi Caroline, I loved learning this information. i do have the mention of dime novels in a couple of books and although I didn't know much, I got a little of it right LOL. Thanks for this, I know I'll be checking back here for research in future. Good one. oxox

  3. You have amazed me once again. I love adding to my store of information.

  4. What a wonderful post, Caroline! I must admit that I've always thought just the term "Dime Novel" had a dangerous yet enticing allure. I loved LOVED all the photos you put in the post, too. Admittedly, I am one of the people who prefers Kathleen Woodiwiss to Louis L'Amour -- although I agree his works provide such an unforgettable visualization of the American West. Still, it makes me sad to think that we have lost Kathleen Woodiwiss. She will forever remain one of my alltime favorite authors. ~ Ashley


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