Saturday, September 26, 2020


By Caroline Clemmons    

In the book I just released earlier this month, CHARLOTTE’S CHALLENGE, the hero is a devoted reader of (fictional) Missouri Kid dime novels. These cheap publications were popular and accessible to most people. When did they begin?

Much of the content of dime novels came from story papers, which were weekly, eight-page newspaper-like publications, varying in size from tabloid to full-size newspaper format and usually costing five or six cents. They started in the mid-1850s and were immensely popular, some titles being issued for over fifty years on a weekly schedule. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, later renamed Leslie's Weekly, was an American illustrated literary and news magazine founded in 1855 and published until 1922. It was one of several magazines started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie.

Dime novels and story papers
are perhaps best described as the television of their day, containing a variety of serial stories and articles. Something was aimed at each member of the family, and often illustrated profusely with woodcuts. Popular story papers included The Saturday JournalYoung Men of AmericaGolden WeeklyGolden HoursGood News, and Happy Days.

In 1860, the publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle (What names!) released a new series of cheap paperbacks, Beadle's Dime NovelsDime novel became a general term for similar paperbacks produced by various publishers in the early twentieth century. 

The first book in the Beadle series was Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens dated June 9, 1860. The novel was essentially a reprint of Stephens's earlier serial, which had appeared in the Ladies' Companion magazine in February, March and April 1839. It sold more than 65,000 copies in the first few months after its publication as a dime novel. I do hope she was well paid for her work but I suspect not. The first 28 were published without a cover illustration, in a salmon-colored paper wrapper. A woodblock print was added in issue 29, and the first 28 were reprinted with illustrated covers. The books were priced, of course, 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 used throughout the series, which ended in the 1920s. Most of the stories were frontier tales reprinted from the numerous serials in the story papers and other sources, but many were original stories.

As the popularity of dime novels increased, original stories came to be the norm. The books were reprinted many times, sometimes with different covers, and the stories were often further reprinted in different series and by different publishers.

The literacy rate increased around the time of the American Civil War, and Beadle's Dime Novels were immediately popular among young, working-class readers. By the end of the war, numerous competitors, such as George Munro and Robert DeWitt, were crowding the field, distinguishing their product only by title and the color of the paper wrappers. Beadle & Adams had their own alternate "brands", such as the Frank Starr line. 

As a whole, the quality of the fiction was derided by highbrow critics, and the term dime novel came to refer to any form of cheap, sensational fiction, rather than the specific format. The English equivalents were generally called penny dreadfuls or shilling shockers.

The pocket-sized sea, Western, railway, circus, gold-digger, and other adventures were an instant success. In 1874, Beadle & Adams added the novelty of color to the covers when their New Dime Novels series replaced the flagship title. Beadle's New Dime Novels ran for 321 issues, until 1885.

Most of the stories in dime novels stood alone, but 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. The 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. Nick Carter first appeared in 1886 in the New York Weekly. Frank Reade, the Old Sleuth and Nick Carter had their own ten-cent weekly titles within a few years.

In 1873, the house of Beadle & Adams introduced a new ten-cent format, with only 32 pages and a black-and-white illustration on the cover, under 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. 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) several stories which featured both, with Old King Brady doggedly on the trail of the vicious gang.

As it is now, the competition was fierce. Publishers were always looking for an edge. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Once again, color came into play when Frank Tousey introduced a weekly with brightly colored covers in 1896. Street & Smith countered by issuing a weekly in a smaller format with muted colors. The price was also dropped to five cents, making the magazines more accessible to children. This would be the last major change 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 were 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 ServicePluck and LuckWild West Weekly, Fame and Fortune Weekly, and The Liberty Boys of '76, each of which issued over a thousand copies weekly. Street & Smith had New Nick Carter WeeklyTip Top WeeklyBuffalo Bill StoriesJesse James StoriesBrave & Bold Weekly and many others. The Tousey stories were generally the more lurid and sensational of the two.

Perhaps the most confusing of the various formats lumped together under the term dime novel are the so-called "thick-book" series, most of which were published by Street & Smith, J. S. Ogilvie and Arthur Westbrook. These books were published in series, contained roughly 150 to 200 pages, 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 them together.

All dime-novel publishers were canny about reusing and refashioning material, but Street & Smith excelled at it. 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. This reminds me of today’s authors taking several of a series and making them into a box set.

The thick books were still in print as late as the 1930s but carry the copyright date of the original story, often as early as the late nineteenth century, leading some dealers and new collectors today to erroneously assume they have original dime novels when the books are only distantly related.

By the turn of the century, new high-speed printing techniques combined with cheaper pulp paper allowed him to drop the price of Argosy from twenty-five cents to ten cents, and sales of the magazine 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, became Detective Story Magazine. 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 into the mid-1920s. 

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, collecting dime novels became popular, and prices soared. Even at that time, the cheap publications were crumbling into dust and becoming hard to find. I had one of these from my family from the early twentieth century but it eventually did just what you read above—it crumbled to dust.




Universal buy link is Available in e-book, print, and enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.

A widow determined to save the family ranch…

A man who inherited cursed pirate gold…

They must combine efforts to defeat an evil man.


Bret Craig is a descendant of one of the crew of The Golden Fleece. Over a century ago the merchant ship had prevailed against pirates carrying a treasure of cursed Inca gold. The legacy promises retribution against anyone who misuses the treasure. Bret has heard the story all his life but he believes the tale is a myth and that he’s in no danger if he spends the money selfishly. Ignoring his sister’s warning, he sets out for a grand adventure heading west.

Widowed former mail-order bride Charlotte Dunn is in danger of losing the family ranch. She lost her husband to a rustler’s bullet when half the cattle were stolen and both ranch hands were killed. When she and her stepsons rescue a man who fell from his horse, they learn the man has amnesia. From his saddlebags, they determine his name is Bret Craig. Charlotte nurses Bret, manages the ranch, and cares for her three stepchildren she loves. No sooner does Bret regain his memory than they discover the remainder of the ranch’s herd has been rustled.

Bret re-evaluates his priorities in order to embrace the love blossoming between Charlotte and him. Can they save the ranch and recover the stolen cattle?

 Great reviews so  far!

1 comment:

  1. I would love to read some of the original dime novels. They really encouraged reading and paved the way for several other genres. Thanks for the history.


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