Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls

Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls

by C.A. Asbrey

Around the 1860s printing methods improved enough to make what we would now call ‘pulp fiction’ possible. Falling costs and better distribution via the railways coincided with rising literacy to make a perfect new product. People wanted sensation. It was provided not only by newspapers whipping up public opinion with emotive reporting, but by works of fiction designed to be quickly and easily consumed by a mass market at a low cost. They started out as serialised adventures in newspapers, but were soon compiled into books to be consumed all at once. They could easily be read in one evening by someone with average literacy.

The term “dime novel” began as a brand name for the publications first issued by the New York printing firm Beadle and Adams. Beadle’s Dime Novels were an immediate success even though there was already a precedent for an inexpensive, stock adventure publication. The successful dime novel included a dramatic cover illustration on a pamphlet-like booklet filled with formulaic tales. They cost a dime, which was cheap enough to allow almost anyone to indulge in the vivid tales full of romance and adventure. They had bold illustrations on the covers and featured detective, military, and even early science fiction stories. In the USA the Western dominated the market.

On the other side of the Atlantic they were called Penny Dreadfuls, reflecting both the cost and the prevailing public opinion of the quality of the literature. They shared the same business model; stack them high, sell them cheap, and get more on the market as quickly as possible. 

Westerns were also popular in Britain but so were tales of historical highwaymen, explorers, and derring-do in the Empire and in exotic places. Many men had spent time in the British Army and they rejoiced in the tales of military heroism in far-flung exotic places which took them back to their youth. In the UK they also loved horror in the great gothic tradition, with books featuring mummies, vampires, and werewolves becoming very popular.

They were generally only about one hundred pages long, and were small enough to fit in a man’s coat pocket, making them both portable and easy to pass along. There was a roaring trade in second hand versions too, often selling at half price or less, depending on condition.

There was money in it too . Dime novels were a lucrative business for many late 19th century authors. If the author could establish a popular character in a long running series, he or she could expect a price of up to $1,000 per story. A less established author could expect close to $50 per story. Let’s put that in perspective.  $1,000 in 1870 equates to $19685.15 and $50 is now $984.26. Many authors shared common traits, including the ability to produce an extraordinary amount of pages in a short time. The earning were not to be sniffed at. Each author was allowed limited room for immense creativity and was required to follow specific formulae in the plot lines and styles of writing they used. A surprising number of authors were willing to do so. Authors like Horatio Alger, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London wrote for Street and Smith under pen names to make the money that would come with their published works. Not all of the authors were writing under pen names to save their reputations. Many were simply semi-professional writers who were often journalists, teachers, or clerks simply looking to make a bit more money than they could with their current occupations. Sometimes, authors wrote under pen names in addition to their real names in an attempt to increase their financial intake.

This financial draw incited many respectable authors to contribute to the genre. Famous names like Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson left their mark on the deluge of cheap fiction pouring from the publishing houses.

Women writers gained surprising recognition during this time. When Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne were selling several thousand copies of their works a year, author Fanny Fern sold 70,000 copies of her book Fern Leaves and 50,000 copies of Ruth Hall. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In 1872, seventy-five percent of books published were written by women.

Dime novels typically told the dramatic adventure stories of a single hero or heroine who often found himself or herself in the midst of a moral dilemma. The novels were ethically sound, endorsing good character and strong moral values when the novel’s hero chose virtue over vice. Sometimes, the protagonist was a historical figure, sparking the young readers’ interest in history.

Women’s dime novels typically dealt with romance and marriage, drawing on the social experience of the readers. Stories often set up a love between a working class girl and a noble and sometimes told of marriages and betrothals gone awry. Usually, these romantic ventures would end in disaster, warning the working class women that the emerging concept of an acceptable female sexuality was in fact, unacceptable. In these stories, virtue was protected at all cost, its importance emphasised for the sake of the readers.

The sale of dime novels was most highly concentrated in the industrial cities and mill towns of the North and West, where the largest groups of lower class people lived and worked in America. They were widely read by the lower classes, primarily by boys and young men, though some girls, grown men, and some groups in the middle class enjoyed the books, as well. Many people, especially of the middle class, were ashamed to admit they read the novels, as they were not necessarily quality reading material and were only mindless entertainment with which to while away the time. 

While it is not as well-remembered today, there was an audience of women for dime novels, too. Many young, working and middle class girls and women enjoyed the stories of romances in the pioneer realm, sensational murder mysteries, and society romances. Bertha M. Clay, Geraldine Fleming, and Laura Jean Libbey were the more prominent female writers of novels like All for Love of a Fair Face, The Story of a Wedding Ring, A Charity Girl, The Unseen Bridegroom, and Only a Mechanic’s Daughter.

It would be hard to say that the nature of the dime novels has been lost. While the 1890s brought the entrance of pulp fiction magazines into the publishing arena, they were heavily influenced by the dime novels. Rising post rates may have caused a decline in the publication of the dime novel, but the content and sentiment behind the works continue to influence publications even to modern day. Sensationalist celebrity gossip magazines, romance paperbacks and romantic comedies, horror movies and ghost stories, and exaggerated tall tales are all directly or indirectly the result of the dime novel craze. It would be true to say that the heroes of the Dime Novels didn’t fade away. They migrated to the movies, and then to television. Their impact is still with us today.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *