Matthew Short
Northern Illinois University

Dime Novel Formats

Any cheaply produced popular fiction published in the United States between 1860 and 1930 might be called a dime novel, providing it was published in paper covers and issued in a series.

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 Indian Wife of the White 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. Not long after this initial success, rival publishers began producing their own 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 fall under the dime novel umbrella, providing it was published in paper covers and issued in a series.

Dime Novels

The first dime novels were pamphlet-bound 4” x 6” booklets with approximately 100 pages, wrapped in burnt orange paper covers that often featured sensational illustrations. Published in the series Beadle's Dime Novels, 321 issues would appeared at regular intervals between June 1860 and August 1874, beginning with Mrs. Ann S. Stephens' Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. Mott estimates that each issue sold between 35,000 and 80,000 copies, which was a significantly higher rate than more conventional hardcover novels. 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.

Malaeska, the Indian wife of the white hunter
Cover of Beadle's Dime Novels no. 1, Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter

A number of imitators soon followed, the chief of which was George Munro. Formerly a clerk for Beadle and Adams, Munro 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). (George and Norman were brothers and competitors, who ended up in court with one another more than once.) Most of these series followed the same formula as Beadle's Dime Novels, with regularly issued pamphlets of around 100 pages that measure approximately 4" x 6," ranging 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.

Nickel Weeklies

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 pages 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 easily 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 both markets with their Log Cabin Library (1889-1897), targeting adults, and the Nugget Library (1889-1892), which was marketed to 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, but 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 hero protagonist. 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 (approximately half the length). Because they were issued in a series, publishers were able to claim the lower second class postage rate for periodicals to mail what were essentially novels. This cost saving measure was one of the many keys to the dime novel's success. Facing an increasing deficit toward the turn of the century, however, the Post Office made repeated attempts to reclassify nickel weeklies as early as 1901. Likely in response to these efforts, publishers began 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 the 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. This was one of the main contributing factors to the demise of the dime novel.

Thick Books

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.

Primary Sources

  • Ellis, Edward S. Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier. Beadle's Dime Novels, no. 8. 1860.
  • Stephens, Mrs. Ann S. Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. Beadle's Dime Novels, no. 1. 1860.
  • Warne, Philip S. A Hard Crowd; or, Gentleman Sam's SisterBeadle's New York Dime Library, no. 1. 1877.

Secondary Sources

  • Cox, Randolph J. The Dime Novel Companion: A Sourcebook (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000).
  • Johannsen, Albert. The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950). 
  • Mott, Frank Luther. Gold Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: MacMillan Co., 1947).
  • Lehu, Isabelle. Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
  • Shove, Raymond Howard. Cheap Book Production in the United States, 1870 to 1891 (Urbana: University of Illinois Library, 1937).
  • Smith v. Hitchcock, 226 U.S., 53 (1912).