The Popular Paperback of the Nineteenth Century
In those days before typewriters and word processors, many Beadle writers could grind out 1000 handwritten words an hour, 12,000 in a day--a full-sized (35,000-word) novel in three days! Considering that Beadle paid $75 to $150 for stories for his Dime Novels and Half-Dime Libraries, twice that for the Dime Libraries, you can see what kind of income a hard-working writer with a busy imagination could count on. (Just for the sake of comparison, a skilled worker pulled down $500-$800/year, an insurance-company clerk $1500, and a lawyer in a small firm $4000; even a college professor made only $800 (plus living quarters)-$1500, and the chief clerk at the U.S. Mint $3240.) One typical contributor read his first dime novel at fifteen. He promptly wrote two short stories, sent them to Beadle's--and received a check for six dollars! A month later he wrote a longer story, and it sold for fifty. Within four years he was turning out full-length dime novels for an average of $100 apiece. Throughout the '80's, despite the burgeoning competition, Beadle never paid less than $150 for a 75,000-word novel, and ranged upward to $250.
Many of Beadle's authors were well-known outside the "dime" field and owners of substantial reputations. Everyone, except school ma'ams, pedants, and the illiterate, read Beadles: "bankers and bootblacks, clergymen and clerks, lawyers and lawbreakers, workmen and tramps, work girls and girls of leisure, soldiers and sailors, President Lincoln and President Wilson…Henry Ward Beecher, Chief Justice Fuller…Seward, and Henry Wilson of Massachusetts…" Munro's Ten Cent Novels, begun in 1866 by Irwin Beadle and George Munro (formerly a Beadle bookkeeper), was the first true competition he faced, but he had no major rivals till the '70's, when appeared Advance Ten Cent Novels (1870), Ornum's Ten Cent Indian Novels and Richmond's Novels (1871), Ten Cent Claude Duval Novels, Ornum's Ten Cent Popular Novels, Highway Novels, and Champion Novels (1872), Black Highwayman Novels and New York Tribune Novels (1873), New Sensation Ten Cent Novels (1874), Lakeside Library (1875), Nickel Library, New York Boy's Library, People's Library, Riverside Library, and Hillside Library (1877), Wide-Awake Library, Vatican Library, Parlor Library, Union Square Library, Franklin Square Library, and Fitch's Popular Library (1878). Also in 1876-7 was published Leslie's Boys Library Series, paper-covered stories of Jack Harkaway, Three Yankee Boys, and various Western adventures. Competition continued in the '80's, with the Boys of New York Pocket Library (1880), Old Sleuth Library and New York Detective Library (1882), Old Cap Collier Library, Five Cent Weekly Library, and Sibley's War Library (1883), Golden Library (1885), Saturday Library and Little Chief Library (1886), Campfire Library and Boy's Star Library (1887), Cricket Library (1888), and still more, almost wholly written for boys, in the '90's.
Before long the dimer even attained a kind of respectability. In 1875, Donnelly, Lloyd &
Co. originated the ten-cent Lakeside Library, chiefly works pirated
from British and French authors; books originally priced at $1.50 were offered for 10c., $4 titles
for 20c. They were quickly copied in this endeavor by
Beadle (the Fireside Library), Frank Leslie (the Home Library, begun in 1877), George Munro
(the Seaside Library, whose first three numbers were East
Lynne, John Halifax, Gentleman, and Jane Eyre), and Harper & Bros.
(the Franklin Square Library, begun in 1878). The Fireside Library consisted of
pamphlet-printed romances costing as little as three to five cents, including titles like The
Count of Monte Cristo, Pickwick Papers, Madcap Violet, and She
Stoops to Conquer. The entire line weighed no more than twenty pounds and provided a
cheap and easy means of furnishing a cow camp or bunkhouse with
a good assortment of reading matter; cowboys took to them like ducks to water. (Sacks of Bull
Durham smoking tobacco, the cowboy's overwhelming
favorite, also included coupons for paperbound books, one to a package, each redeemable for a
single volume from the list of 303 (later 360) titles also
tucked into the sack, by authors like Shakespeare, Defoe, and Stevenson.) Certain publishing
houses of the cowboy era put out thin rice-paper editions of
Scott, Poe, Burns, Tennyson, Shakespeare, the Bible, and probably other things, ideal for
saddlebag-carrying. Various periodicals offered books as premiums
for subscription drives, as did soap-wrapper contests; these were usually in the form of 8x12"
double-columned paperbacks. The Home Library was actually
designed for the use of railroad travellers, and offered at 10-20c. everything from Charles Reade,
Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins, and John Halifax (yes, the
same one Munro published!) to Rhoda Broughton's Goodby, Sweetheart!, Annie
Edwards's Vagabond Heroine, and James Payn's Murphy's Master.
Why did the dime novel succeed? Because, quite apart from its cheapness and accessibility, it came along at exactly the right time. People need heroes to worship, and larger-than-life Westerners like Cody and Hickok seemed to embody their ideal. After the tragic splitting of the country by the Civil War, they were searching desperately for a sense of national unity and purpose; the westward movement seemed to be that great mission and purpose, and they wanted to share in it, if only secondhand. They also longed to escape, at least in imagination, from the frightening changes being wrought in the older parts of the country by the explosive growth in industry that followed the War. Huge new fortunes were turning cities into dark, smoky infernos crowded with rancid slums. To the working classes especially--oppressed by dismal factory jobs and often brutal bosses--the image of the Westerner riding a vast, uncluttered landscape with gun on hip, utterly his own boss and beholden to nobody, had an intoxicating, mesmerizing appeal. (We see this clearly in JD!) Boys particularly loved the genre because every healthy boy is at heart a romancer. The dime novel strewed romance through farm, mining camp, and city street, and lifted its reader out of his surroundings, however sordid they might be. Its action began right in the first line. It ignored the soul torment of the Arthur Dimmesdales of conventional literature. The problems it presented were physical, and it told its story in language that made pictures in the mind. There were no verbal puzzles in it. Its authors believed that their duty was, quite simply, to entertain.
Most Beadle's dime novels (and presumably at least the early numbers of other firms' copies) were about American history: of the 321 titles in their first series of releases, 43 were set during the Revolution, 30 in Colonial times and as many again in the trans-Allegheny West, 26 in Old Canada or during the French Wars, 24 in the early trans-Mississippi West (emigrants, Mormons, the Border War), 23 in pre-Civil-War Texas and the Southwest, 19 at sea, 15 each among the Western Indians and the hunters, scouts, trappers, and mountain men, 10 in the War of 1812, six in Gold Rush California, five during the Spanish conquests of the 17th Century, five in the Sioux War of '62, three in the Algerine Wars, two each in early Michigan, the then-ongoing Civil War, and the Seminole War, and one each in the Black Hawk War and the Pike's Peak region, besides two in the antebellum South and six in the early independent (1783-1812) U.S. Contemporary Wild West adventures--another 20--began in 1870 with #203, Joseph E. Badger's The Masked Guide; or, The Road Agents of the Plains. None in this first series, apart from the sea stories, seems to have been set outside the boundaries of North America. It was some time in the '70's that the majority of Beadle's titles began to concern the "Wild West"--especially scouts, Indians, mining camps, etc.; cowboys appeared in fiction well before the Civil War, but didn't emerge as leading dime-novel characters till the '80's, after the Indian had been confined to the reservation and ceased to offer timely fodder for fiction. In 1878 the company brought out what was apparently a factual history of the West, Western Wilds and the Men Who Redeem Them.
Among the historical figures who appeared in Beadle's various series, usually as heroes, were Indians (King Philip, Tecumseh, Pontiac, Black Hawk, even Sitting Bull) scouts and pioneers (Simon Kenton, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson), figures of the French Wars (Gen. Wolfe, Count Frontenac, Montcalm), outlaws and pirates (Billy the Kid, John Murrell, the Girtys, the Harpes, Joaquin Murieta, Jean Lafitte, Henry Morgan, Steed Bonnet), leaders like Juarez and Joseph Smith, Gen. Sterling Price, Johnny Appleseed, Wild Bill Hickok, Capt. Raphael Semmes, Cortez, Montezuma, Capt. Jack Crawford the Poet Scout, Nathaniel Bacon, Gen. Samuel Hopkins, William Henry "Old Tippecanoe" Harrison, Commodore Perry, Cotton Mather, Abercrombie, Billy Bowlegs, Céran St. Vrain, William Drummond, Sir William Berkeley, "Texas Jack" Omohundro, Custer, "Kiowa Charley" Montgomery, "Arizona Joe" Bruce, Buck Taylor (who starred in his own book, Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys, c. 1882, and later became a star in Cody's Wild West), Dr. Frank Powell, "Pawnee Bill" Lillie, "Grizzly" Adams, Eddie Burgess and brother "Nebraska Charlie," "California Joe" Milner, "Pony Bob" Haslam, "Texas Charlie" Bigelow, Lewis Wetzel, prominent Texans like Capt. John Donaldson, Bill Mann, Joe Booth, Col. Ford, Tom Clark, Jack Hodge, Jim Bearfield, Ben Thompson, Phil Coe, Jim Ransom, Mat Nolan, John Littleton, Texas Bill George, Big Foot Wallace, and "Buckskin" Sam Hall, and such Revolutionary greats as Washington, Arnold, Mad Anthony Wayne, Capt. Morgan, Capt. Preston, Gen. Greene, Cornwallis, Burgoyne, Schuyler, Gen. Herkimer, Joseph Brant, Francis Marion, Sumter, Tarleton, Walter Butler, Israel Putnam, George Rogers Clark, Ethan Allen, John Paul Jones, and Sir Henry Clinton. Calamity Jane did the same at least once. (In her book a foe's "sentence was finished in a ringing shriek, for Calamity had drawn a revolver and shot him…"So much for your lyin', you miserable whelp!" the girl cried…Now she dashed away through the narrow gulch, catching with delight long breaths of the perfume of flowers which met her nostrils at every onward leap of her horse, piercing the gloom of the night with her dark, lovely eyes, searchingly, lest she should be surprised; lighting a cigar at full motion…" When four desperadoes, attracted by the glow of her cigar, leaped at her from ambush, she rode them down, amid "howls of pain and rage, and curses too vile to repeat here," and galloped away unharmed, whooping like a Comanche.) Later characters such as Jack, Seth, Buffalo Ben, Hurricane Bill, Kit, and Sam suggested Omohundro, Seth Bullock, Hickok, Carson, and Sam Bass. From this it becomes obvious that they were probably an important tool in making young people realize that there was more to "history" than merely memorizing dates, battles, and the names of kings!
Col. Prentiss Ingraham, one of the most successful dime novelists, had popular writing in his blood: his father was Joseph Holt Ingraham, who in the '30's and '40's, before being ordained in the Episcopal Church and turning to religious romances, produced a long list of sensational fiction, including Lafitte, or The Pirate of the Gulf (1836), Burton, or The Sieges (1838), The Quadroone, or St. Michael's Day (1841), Frank Rivers; or The Dangers of the Town (1843), Rafael; or The Twice Condemned (1845), Scarlet Feather, or The Young Chief of the Albenaquies (1845), and Ringold Griffit; or, The Raftsman of the Susquehannah (1847). So prolific was he that in 1846, at the age of 35, he could claim to have written 80 novels. Young Prentiss (1843-1904) was born near Natchez, joined the Confederacy at 18, and thereafter served under Juarez in Mexico, in the Austrian army against Prussia, in Crete against Turkey, in Africa, and in part of the Cuban war of 1868-78 against Spain, besides travelling widely in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Around 1876 he settled in New York and began writing--exciting pirate yarns and tales of action, peril, and bloodshed woven out of his own experiences and those of Pawnee Bill (which he chronicled as such), Cody, Hickok, and other famous Westerners. He inherited Ned Buntline's name after Judson's death, and wrote some 600-700 of the genre (approximately 23 a year), over 200 of them "Bill stories" (probably including most of those signed by Buffalo Bill, and certainly among them Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Boyhood to Manhood: Deeds of Daring and Romantic Incidents of the Life of William F. Cody, the Monarch of the Bordermen, which was published (just in time for the Christmas-stocking trade!) on December 14, 1881). He is said to have written a complete 35,000-word novel in one marathon session lasting a day and a night. Among the books attributed to him are The Beautiful Rivals (1884), Cadet Carey of West Point (1890), and The Girl Rough Riders (1903).
Capt. Mayne Reid, born in County Down, Ireland, in 1818, spent the years 1839-49 travelling the West, living with trappers, hunting buffalo, trading with Indians, and serving as a lieutenant in the First New York Volunteers in the Mexican War--and the next 30 years writing fiction based on his experiences. His plots were rambling and picaresque, his Indians all spoke pure Oxford English, and the tribes were often geographically mixed; but his details of landscape, vegetation, accoutrements, and customs were usually exact. He favored an indomitable and usually taciturn hero, possessed of a mysterious romantic past and occasionally bearing traces of the medieval knight. Among his 90+ titles, many of which appeared in dime format, were The Boy Hunters, The Quadroon, Afloat in the Forest, The Child Wife, The Helpless Hand: A Tale of Backwoods Retribution, The Planter Pirate: A Souvenir of Mississippi, The White Squaw, The Yellow Chief: A Romance of the Rocky Mountains, Blue Dick, or The Yellow Chief's Vengeance: A Romance of the Rocky Mountains, The Island Pirate: A Tale of the Mississippi, The Cuban Patriot, or, The Beautiful Creole: An Episode of the Cuban Revolution, The Headless Horseman: A Strange Story of Texas, The Death-Shot; or, Tracked to Death, The Specter Barque: A Tale of the Pacific, The Captain of the Rifles; or, The Queen of the Lakes: A Romance of the Mexican Valley, The Wild Huntress; or, The Big Squatter's Vengeance, The Maroon: A Tale of Voodoo and Obeah, The Hunters' Feast, The Land Pirates, or, The League of Devil's Island: A Tale of the Mississippi, The Ocean Hunters, or, The Chase of the Leviathan: A Romance of Perilous Adventure, Gaspar, the Gaucho, or, Lost on the Pampas: A Tale of the Gran Chaco, and perhaps the best-known quartet out of the lot, The Scalp Hunters: A Romance of the Plains, The White Chief: A Romance of Northern Mexico, The War Trail; or, The Hunt of the Wild Horse, and The Rifle Rangers; or, Adventures in Southern Mexico.
"Captain Jack" (John Wallace) Crawford was born in 1847 and had experience as a miner, Civil War soldier, Chief of Scouts for the Black Hills Rangers, Indian agent, and rancher on the Rio Grande. Edward S. Ellis was only twenty when his Seth Jones became a runaway success (it sold 45,000 copies on its original publication, and later became a standard reprint item in various dime and nickel libraries); he wrote under seven pseudonyms, producing several long series including the Deerfoot, Young Pioneer, and Log Cabin. Samuel Stone Hall, known as "Buckskin Sam" and "Major Sam S. Hall," was born in 1838 and had firsthand knowledge of the West; his titles included Diamond Dick, the Dandy from Denver (1882), Bow and Bowie; or, Ranging for Reds (1882), Arizona Jack; or, Giant George's Tenderfoot Pard (1882), Desperate Duke, the Guadalope "Galoot" (1883), and Rocky Mountain Al; or, Nugget Nell, the Waif of the Range (1883).
Deadwood Dick, created by Edward L. Wheeler, was among the most popular and lasting of the dime-novel characters; his adventures were chronicled in such titles as Deadwood Dick, the Prince of the Road; or, the Black Rider of the Black Hills, by Edward L. Wheeler (1877), Deadwood Dick's Dream: or, The Rivals of the Road (1881), Deadwood Dick's Defiance, or The Double Daggers (c. 1882), Omaha Oll, the Masked Terror; or, Deadwood Dick in Danger (c. 1885), Deadwood Dick, Jr.; or, The Sign of the Crimson Crescent (1886), Deadwood Dick's Protegee: or, Baby Hess, the Girl Gold Miner (1887), and Deadwood Dick, Jr., in Chicago: or, The Anarchist's Daughter (1888). Wheeler also created Hurricane Nell, a Western heroine in men's clothing, who debuted in Bob Woolf, the Border Ruffian: or, The Girl Dead-Shot (1878). And he was the author of the Calamity Jane novels, including the first, Deadwood Dick on Deck: or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-Up (1878), and Blonde Bill: or, Deadwood Dick's Home Base (1880). Frederick Whittaker's Mustang-Hunters; or, The Beautiful Amazon of the Hidden Valley, which appeared in the late '60's, featured a somewhat similar heroine.
In 1878 "Buckskin Sam" produced a dimer titled Kit Carson, Jr., the Crack Shot of the West. In 1881 appeared a dime novel entitled The True Life of Billy the Kid, doubtless rushed into existence as soon as the word of Billy's death reached the centers of publication. Original characters, too, were seen, as in Black Hoss Ben or Tiger Dick's Lone Hand (c. 1882). Other dimers included Bald Eagle, or The Last of the Ramapaughs, by Eliza Oakes Smith (1867), The Sagamore of Saco, also by Smith (1868), The Patriot Highwayman: A Tale of the Revolution (1870), The Guerrillas of the West; or, the Life, Character and Daring Exploits of the Younger Brothers (1875), The Fighting Trapper; or, Kit Carson to the Rescue, by Frank Starr (c. 1876), Captain Dick Talbot, King of the Road; or, The Black-Hoods of Shasta, by Albert W. Aiken (1880), Lady Jaguar, the Robber Queen: A Romance of the Black Chaparral, by William H. Manning (1882), Roaring Ralph Rockwood, the Reckless Ranger, by Harry St. George (1884), and Wild Ivan, the Boy Claude Duval; or, The Brotherhood of Death by Edward L. Wheeler (c. 1885).
There were other Beadles set in other times and places. These included Dr. J. H. Robinson's The Flying Horseman; or, The Robber Prince of Hounslow Heath (1870, England in Charles II's time) and The Knights of the Red Cross…A Tale of the Alhambra (1879); Francis Johnson's The Bush Ranger (1871, Australia as a penal colony), Septimus Urban's The Robber Prince (1871, England in 1761), Robinson's The Scarlet Knight (1871, Spain in Moorish times), Prentiss Ingraham's The Cretan Rover; or, Zuleikah, the Beautiful: A Romance of the Crescent and the Cross (1880) and Fire-Eye, the Sea Hyena (1881, London and pirates and smugglers in the 18th Century); Anthony P. Morris's Azhort the Axman; or, The Secret of the Ducal Palace: A Romance of Venice (1880) and The French Spy; or, The Bride of Paris: A Thrilling Story of the Commune (1880); Delle Sara's Shamus O'Brien, the Bould Boy of Glingal; or, Irish Hearts and Irish Homes (1880), Frederick Whittaker's The Severed Head; or, The Secret of Castle Coucy: A Legend of the Great Crusade (1881), Red Rudiger, the Archer…A Romance of the Alps (1881), The Phantom Knights: A Tale of Chivalry (1882), The Death's Head Cuiraissiers (1882, Napoleon's day), The Man in Red…A Story of the Burning of Moscow (1882), The Mad Huzzars…A Story of Four Irish Soldiers of Fortune (1883, Seven Years' War), Old Double-Sword; or, Pilots and Pirates (1883, Japan about 1870), Lance and Lasso…A Tale of Four Boys' Summer Vacation on the Pampas of Buenos Ayres (1880), The Sword Hunters; or, The Land of the Elephant Riders (1880), The Boy Bedouins (1880), Wolfgang, the Robber of the Rhine (1881), and The Boy Crusader..A Story of Richard the Lionheart (1882); Harrison Ainsworth's The Blacksmith Outlaw (an 1881 abridgement/reprint of his 1874 serial about Wat Tyler's Rebellion); George Walker's The Three Spaniards (1881 reprint of an 1800 tale about almost-contemporary Madrid); Thomas Hoyer Monstery's Mourad, the Mameluke; or, The Three Swordmasters (a sort of Three Musketeers knockoff, 1881, set during Napoleon's Egyptian campaign) and Corporal Cannon, the Man of Forty Duels: A True Story of the African Chausseurs (1882); C. Dunning Clark's The King's Fool…A Romance of Irish Chivalry (1881), The Yankee Rajah…A Tale of the Malay Seas (1881), and Paul deLacy, the French Beast Charmer (1882, Africa); J. D. Conroy's The Smuggler Cutter (1884, a reprint of a story of English smugglers in 1822); Charles Morris's The Desert Rover (1883, Egypt during the English conquest) and A Hot Trail; or, Clark Cloverly Among the Tartars (1884); Edward Willett's The Boy Cruisers (1883, a trip up the Amazon), T. C. Harbaugh's The Pampas Hunters (1885); at least two (Robinson's 1872 Alethe and H. R. Millbank's 1868 Scout of the Jungle) during the Sepoy Rebellion; several in Czarist Russia; a couple in rebellious Cuba. It's difficult for readers of today to grasp how much more "respectable" a novel seemed to Victorians if it was in some way "edifying"--particularly if it taught history or described far-off lands and unfamiliar peoples.
In 1876 Beadle changed his format from pocket-size to the large folio page Beadle's Dime Library. In 1878 appeared two innovations, B'Hoys of Yale; or, The Scrapes of a Hard Set of Collegians, and the first "detective" story (Death-Face, the Detective); in 1883 the first recorded story of circus life (Champion Sam; or, The Monarchs of the Show). There were also three series devoted to what we would call "romance novels," that is, aimed at women: the New Twenty-Five Cent Novels (4v., 1869-70); Frank Starr's Fifteen Cent Illustrated Novels (22v., 1869-71); and the Waverley Library (353v., 1879-86). The deterioration of the dime novel began in the early '80's and was accelerated with the introduction of detective, gamin, and bootblack stories, but Beadle, which published its last books in 1905, never offered many of these. In the '80's appeared the first of perhaps 1000 Nick Carter "detective" novels, written (under Carter's name) by John Russell Coryell; other authors continued the series. Other cheap novels offered narratives of border adventure, detective stories, exploits of celebrated highwaymen, and a line of twenty-five-cent Prize Novels with titles like The Midnight Queen, The Matricide's Daughter, The Rescued Nun, The Belle of the Bowery. Around the time of World War I the dime novel gave way to the pulp magazine, which carried stories both complete and serialized and usually focused on some popular genre: Westerns, science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, air adventure. In the late '40's these in turn were supplanted by the paperback as we know it, with its popularly-priced reprints of classics and best-sellers and its original genre publications. The wheel has turned full circle.
Dime novels nowadays, if you can find them, go for $10 to $40 a copy and up, owing chiefly to the fact that they were printed on poor quality paper that hasn't stood up well to the ravages of time. In the 1960's a few of the Buffalo Bill and Young Wild West series were reprinted as conventional paperbacks; these may be somewhat easier to acquire.
-Want to learn more? Check out these books:
-The House of Beadle & Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels, Albert Johannsen. The definitive history of the genre's originator and the source for much of this essay. It can be found and read online complete at: http://libws66.lib.niu.edu/badndp/contents2.html
-Dime Novels: or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature, Edmund Pearson
-The Dime Novel Companion, J. Randolph Cox
-Catalog of Dime Novel Material, John Alexander Hayes
-Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes, ed. Larry E. Sullivan & Lydia Cushman Schurman
-The Dime Novel Western, Daryl Jones
-Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America, Michael Denning
-Dime Novels, Escape Fiction of the 19th Century,- no author given, 7v., 1980-2
-The Great Rascal: The Life and Adventures of Ned Buntline, Jay Monaghan
-And these websites:
-And lots of links at:
Do you know of a book or website about Dime Novels that isn't listed here? Contact the author of the essay at email@example.com