What is a dime novel?
Dime novels are a format of inexpensive popular literature that were produced in the United States from 1860 through the 1920s, and sold predominantly at railway stations, general stores, through the mail, and virtually anywhere else other than bookshops. While clothbound novels were sold for roughly $1.25 per volume in 1860s dollars, dime novels were sold for a dime, opening up leisure reading for the masses in a way previously not possible. They were the bestsellers of their time; the most popular characters and stories sold in hundreds of thousands of copies, and there are bestselling authors who published within the format for their entire careers.
The original dime novels imitated the frontier stories of James Fenimore Cooper, and westerns were so prevalent that for a time the term “dime novel” was synonymous with the genre. Eventually, the cowboy and frontiersman made way for the detective and stockbroker, reflecting a more urban readership, but numerous genres were popular in the format, including piracy and seafaring stories, war stories, historical fiction, love stories, and even some of our earliest science fiction. Characters like Nick Carter, Deadwood Dick, and Frank Merriwell were at one time as popular and recognizable as Superman or Mickey Mouse is today, even spawning their own fan fiction.
The popularity of dime novels and the fact that they were sold primarily to children inevitably raised questions concerning their moral impact on young people. Anthony Comstock, Secretary and Chief Special Agent of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, waged a one man war against the format, destroying thousands of issues and even arresting publisher Frank Tousey. Disparaged and dismissed for decades as trash fiction, the dime novel has largely been ignored by literary critics and historians, until a recent resurgence of interest. However, research libraries did not begin collecting them until long after they had ceased being published, which accounts for the gaps in our collections, as well as the many missing, torn, and yellowing pages. Nickels and Dimes is an on-going effort to preserve the dime novel and to make them freely and openly accessible to scholars and students.
What is a nickel weekly?
The term "dime novel" was originally a brand name, not a format, and referred to the paper-covered novels issued in a continuous series and sold for a dime by Irwin P. Beadle, beginning with Maleaska, the Indian wife of the white hinter in Beadle's Dime Novels no. 1. Imitation follows success and with imitation came additional formats, like "libraries," which were later known as "weeklies." These were about half the length of the dime novels and sold for half the price. Like dime novels, nickel weeklies told one complete story, usually reprinted, although they often included serialized back-up features. Half a dozen variations exist between formats, often driven by the economic necessity to qualify for the lower periodical postal rate. For that reason, "dime novel" is used as the generic term to refer to most cheaply-made and mass-produced popular fiction from the late 19th and early 20th century. Additional formats worth mentioning include the story paper and the thickbook, which we hope to eventually add to our digital collection.
Who are Johannsen and LeBlanc?
This site contains scanned materials drawn from two major dime novel collections in Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University: the Albert Johannsen and Edward T. LeBlanc Collections.
Albert Johannsen was a professor of petrology and a scholar of early American popular literature. His landmark bibliography, The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels (1950), is a comprehensive study of the firm that published the first dime novels in the early 1860s. Over 17 years in the making, the three-volume work includes a year-by-year history of the firm, a biographical dictionary of Beadle's authors, and an exhaustive accounting of every series and every issue the house ever published -- 5,571 volumes in total. The Albert Johannsen Collection includes Johannsen's notes, papers, dry plates, and memorabilia from when he wrote his bibliography, as well as his personal collection of dime novels, including many near-complete runs of series like Beadle's dime novels and Beadle's half-dime library. The long-term goal of Nickel and Dimes is to make as much of this collection available online as possible.
Edward T. LeBlanc was the editor of the Dime Novel Round-Up from 1952 to 1994 and, like Johannsen, worked on his own bibliography of dime novels. Although never published, this 13-binder bibliography provides a comprehensive listing of nearly every dime novel series and title. A copy is available online from our friends at Villanova University and is being used as the foundation for The Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography. The Edward T. LeBlanc Collection, acquired in 1998, is comprised of over 700 different dime novel series and novelettes, ranging in date from around 1850 to 1925. Titles such as Fame and Fortune Weekly, Pluck and Luck, Secret Service, Wide Awake Library, Seaside Library, and Oliver Optic's Magazine are well represented in this collection, many with fairly complete runs.
I have a different question!
Questions about Nickels and Dimes can be directed to Matthew Short (Metadata Librarian) at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions about the LeBlanc and Johannsen collections should be directed to Lynne Thomas (Curator of Special Collections) at email@example.com.
If there's a series or a novel from our collections that you'd be interested in seeing digitized, please let us know. The long-term goal of this project is to digitize all of our holdings, but that effort will likely take several years. In the meantime, we try to prioritize those items our patrons have shown the most interest in.
Note that some of the items in our collection are in rough shape. Because they were intended to be disposable, dime novels were often printed on very cheap paper. Libraries also didn't begin collecting dime novels until well after they had disappeared from the newsstands and most early collectors (often children) unfortunately didn't have long-term preservation in mind. As a result, many of our dime novels have missing pages or other defects, which are also present in the digital versions. However, because we're scanning at a high volume, mistakes also happen from time to time during digitization. If you find a problem, please let us know!