The term “dime novel” was originally a brand name that referred to Beadle’s Dime Novels, a series of inexpensive pamphlet-bound books published between 1860 and 1874. At least two of the issues in this series, Malaeska, The Wife of the Indian Hunter (Beadle's Dime Novels no. 1) and Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier (Beadle's Dime Novels no. 8) sold upwards of 300,000 copies, making them among the best selling novels of the mid-19th century.1 It wasn’t long before rivals began publishing imitation dime novels. The format would continue to evolve over the next 50 years, largely driven by competition between publishers and changing postal regulations. "Dime novel” would ultimately be used to encompass a wide range of formats, including precursors, like the story paper and pamphlet novel, as well as nickel weeklies and thick books. Essentially, any cheaply produced popular fiction published in the United States between 1860 and 1930 might be called a dime novel, whether it cost a nickel or a dime and whether it had 8 pages or 300 pages. This page provides an overview of the different formats that often fall under the "dime novel" umbrella, with links to specimens available on Nickels and Dimes.
Story papers are newspapers that feature original serialized fiction, or stories issued in chapters over several issues. This format pre-existed Beadle's Dime Novels by as many as 30 years and continued to thrive well into the dime novel era. Although often considered a distinct format by collectors and scholars, in many ways the story paper and dime novel are virtually inseperable: most dime novel publishers also published story papers and many stories published in dime novels were originally serialized in story papers. The most important distinction is that fiction in the story paper is serialized, while every dime novel contains at least one complete novel-length story.
Another format, the pamphlet novel, also pre-dates the dime novel, offering inexpensive, complete novels under paper covers for the first time.
As news dailies developed in the big cities during the mid-1830s, some weekly newspapers began to specialize in serialized fiction, often accompanied by news items of local interest and advertisements. These are sometimes known as "literary weeklies" or simply "weeklies." Towards the end of the decade, “mammoths,” which also consisted chiefly of fiction, grew in popularity, so-called because their dimensions dwarfed those of conventional newspapers. The largest of these, the Universal Yankee Nation (1841-1842), took up more than 8,450 square inches and was nearly 11 feet tall.2 Printing mammoths was significantly more expensive than printing conventional newspapers, however, and the fad died out by 1844.
A literary weekly or mammoth might feature the occasional prize-winning story of original fiction, but most of the contents were pirated European serials. At the time, there were no international copyright laws, allowing American publishers to offer stories published in England or France almost immediately after their initial publication abroad. Uncle Sam (1841-1856), published by Edward, Henry, and George Williams, was the first paper to run at least one original story by an American author in every issue. Frederick Gleason would take this one step further in the Flag of Our Union (1846-1870) by publishing fiction written by and about Americans exclusively. Advertisements and news items would become increasingly rare in these papers, with publishers relying almost exclusively on subscriptions for their revenue. This is considered by scholars like Mary Noel to be the dawn of the “true” story paper era.3
Robert Bonner and his New York Ledger (1855-1903) were one of the greatest publishing success stories of the mid-19th century, with a steady circulation of 400,000 at its height in 1859, far outpacing any other periodical in the country.4 Like with Beadle’s Dime Novels, the Ledger became so successful that contemporaries credited its publisher with inventing the story paper format, when, in fact, he made few real innovations. For a number of years, the only significant competition for the Ledger was Street and Smith’s New York Weekly (1859-1910). (Street and Smith would ultimately outlast Bonner, becoming one of the most successful publishers of inexpensive fiction well into the pulp era.) The success of Bonner and Street and Smith ultimately led to the “great story-paper flood”5 of the 1870s, which saw dozens of papers that attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the format. Although story papers would continue to be published alongside dime novels and other formats of cheap fiction for several more decades, the format peaked in popularity in the early 1880s before it gradually declined.
The earliest pamphlet novels appeared in the 1840s when Brother Jonathan (1839-1848) and the New World (1839-1848), two competing mammoths, began issuing “extras.” These were complete novels in paper covers that were offered at low prices, often between 6 ¼ and 25 cents, often selling as many as 20,000 to 30,000 copies within the first few weeks of publication.6 Conventional publishers responded with aggressive price competition and by lobbying the Post Office to increase the cost of mailing pamphlets, which temporarily put a stop to the extras. The format would be revived a few years later when Gleason began offering his own pamphlet novels. His greatest success, Maturin Murray Ballou’s Fanny Campbell; or the Female Pirate Captain (1845), would sell more than 80,000 copies in the first three months alone.7
The first dime novels were pamphlet-bound 4” x 6” booklets with approximately 100 pages, wrapped in burnt orange paper covers, most of which featured sensational illustrations. Published in the series Beadle's Dime Novels, 321 issues would appeared at regular intervals between June 1860 and August 1874. Mott estimates that each issue sold between 35,000 and 80,000 copies, which was a significantly higher rate than more expensive conventional novels.8 The majority of these books were frontier or Western stories, many of them featuring border romances about conflicts with Native Americans, although sea stories and historical romances set during the American Revolution or the War of 1812 were also popular. While no doubt enjoyed by children, the audience for these early dime novels were primarily adults: they were priced for adults and dealt with adult themes. A number of imitators soon followed, the chief of which was George Munro, formerly a clerk for Beadle and Adams, who split off with Irwin P. Beadle to publish Irwin P Beadle's Ten Cent Novels, which later became Munro's Ten Cent Novels (1863-1877). Other notable dime novel series include Robert DeWitt's DeWitt's Ten Cent Romances (1867-1873) and Norman Munro's Ten Cent Popular Novels (1870-1875). Most of these series followed the same formula as Beadle's Dime Novels, with regularly issued 100 page pamphlets that measure approximately 4" x 6," but which ranged in price from 5 cents to a quarter. The dime novel format was popular through the 1860s and 1870s, but had mostly disappeared by the mid-1880s.
In 1877, Beadle and Adams debuted two of their longest-running running series, Beadle's Half-Dime Library (1877-1905) and Beadle's New York Dime Library (1877-1905). These were printed in a new quarto format at 8 1/2" x 12 1/2." and consisted of 16-page pamphlets with two columns of text. Also known as "black and whites" or "libraries," the quartos sold for 5 cents and were mainly marketed to children and teenagers, who could spare a nickel more readily than they could spare a dime. Imitators again followed, most notably Frank Tousey's Five Cent Wide Awake Library (1878-1898) and George Munro's Old Sleuth Library (1885-1905). Street and Smith would try to capitalize on two markets, with their Log Cabin Library (1889-1897) targeted at adults and the Nugget Library (1889-1892) for children.
The number of pages and size of this format would vary greatly over the years, ranging from 16 pages to 32 pages and from 6" x 8 1/2" to 8 1/2" x 11". The subject matter of these novels were much the same as the dime novels, with a greater focus on stories about cowboys, detectives, stockbrokers, and inventors. Recurring characters like Deadwook Dick, Buffalo Bill, Old Sleuth, and Nick Carter also became common, with entire series devoted to the exploits of a single character. By 1890, the format would become known simply as "nickel weeklies." Beginning with Tip Top Weekly (1896-1912), covers were regularly printed in full-color. Frank Tousey and Street and Smith dominated the field for much of the 1890s and 1900s, with series like Pluck and Luck (1898-1929), Fame and Fortune Weekly (1905-1928), Secret Service (1899-1925), Work and Win (1898-1925), Nick Carter Weekly (1897-1912), and Brave and Bold Weekly (1902-1911).
At least initially, nickel weeklies featured only one complete story, which were often much shorter than those that appeared in the dime novels. But because they were issued in a series, publishers were able to claim the much lower second class postage rate for periodicals to mail what were essentially complete novels. This cost saving measure was one of the many keys to the dime novel's success. Facing an increasing deficit, the Post Office begn making repeated attempts to reclassify nickel weeklies as early as 1901. Likely in response to these efforts, publishers started to include more backup features after the main story, including serialized stories, short stories, news items, and correspondences. As a result, many later nickel weeklies have much more in common with periodicals than they do with the original dime novel format, even though most people associate the term "dime novel" with nickel weeklies. Publishers would eventually lose to the Post Office in 1909 when Tip Top Weekly was classified as a book in Smith v. Hitchcock.9 This was one of the contributing factors to the demise of the nickel weekly and the rise of the pulp magazine.
In the late 1880s, Street and Smith started publishing 5" x 7" paperback books with between 150 and 300 pages, later dubbed "thick books" by collectors. These consisted chiefly of reprints from story papers and nickel weeklies, with the occasional new material. The thick books kept many stories originally published in the late 19th century alive for 40 or more years, with some titles appearing as late as the 1930s.
- 1. Mott, Frank Luther. Gold Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: MacMillan Co., 1947), 308-309.
- 2. Lehu, Isabelle. Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 63-64.
- 3. Noel, Mary. Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly (New York, Macmillan, 1954), 66-67.
- 4. Ibid., 8-9.
- 5. Ibid., 277.
- 6. Shove, Raymond Howard. Cheap Book Production in the United States, 1870 to 1891 (Urbana: University of Illinois Library, 1937), vi-vii.
- 7. Noel, 139.
- 8. Mott, 149.
- 9. Smith v. Hitchcock, 226 U.S., 53 (1912).