The novels were short, paperback, cheaply bound, and sensational. Often, they touched on the lurid and scandalous subject matter, making them accessible and interesting reads. Today, the term “dime novel” is sometimes used as a perforative to describe fiction that is not as literary or high class as it might be.
The first “dime novel” was part of a series titled Beadle’s Dime Novels. The first was Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Anne S. Stephens, published in 1860. It sold more than 60,000 copies in the first months it was available. Later books used the term. It was attributed to similar paperbacks that were produced throughout the country. The term was sued as late as 1940
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Dime Novel Definition
Dime novels were short, cheaply produced works of fiction popular during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Throughout the history of the dime novel, stories were reprinted from various sources. But, as time progressed, original stories were introduced. The stories were popular among the young, especially as literacy rates increased during the American Civil War. Most cost between ten and fifteen cents. This makes classifying the stories more complex. Sometimes, they were referring to as “penny novels,” “ten-cent novels,” and “ten-cent novelettes.”
Dime novels were different sizes, usually around 6×4 inches with around 100 pages. But, this could vary. In the Beadle series, some of the books were published without covers but instead in a paper wrapper to save more money. But, eventually, woodblock prints were used (starting with number 29). In this particular series, the various authors who worked on it focused on frontier tales (many of which were reprints from other sources). Today, dime novels are sometimes described as the television of their day.
During the 1880s, more stories began to stretch over more than one novel. This means that particular characters gained popularity over others.
The format fell out of popularity towards the end of the 19th century. New high-speed printing techniques in combination with cheaper paper allowed production on individual magazines and other publications to drop. This allowed for the rise of pulp magazines.
The audience of dime novels was primarily focused on cities around the Northern and Western parts of the United States. They were widely read by the lower classes, including young boys (and some girls). Older readers were also common. When it came to the upper classes, many were ashamed, according to History.org, to admit that they spent time reading these sensational stories.
Dime Novel Authors
Some of the best-known dime novel authors were:
- Thomas C. Harbaugh
- Albert W. Aiken
- Edward L. Wheeler
- Colonel Prentiss Ingraham
- Joseph W. Badger, Jr
Of these, Ingraham was the most successful during his lifetime, having written, according to History.org, more than 600 novels. He also published plays and poems and created the famous character, Buffalo Bill.
This included stories like
- Buffalo Bill’s Victory. A Story of Tangled Trails
- Buffalo Bill’s Rifle Rangers. A Story of Rough Riding Rescues
- Buffalo Bill at Graveyard Gap; or, The Doomed Drivers of the Overland
- Buffalo Bill’s Hard Night’s Work; or, Captain Coolhand’s Kidnapping Plot
Examples of Other Dime Novels
- The Liberty Boys Running the Blockade by Harry Moore
- The Boy Nihilist by Allan Arnold
- Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Jonathan Slick (Ann Sophia Stephens)
Influence of Dime Novels
The influence of dime novels has not been lost. The content behind them, carried on in pulp fiction magazines, lasted throughout the next decades and can be seen today in other sensationalist publications like celebrity gossip columns and cheap romantic paperbacks, comedies, and horror stories. Exaggerated tales, meant to entertain above everything else, were historically influenced by the dime novel.
A dime novel is a sensational story published in the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States. They were cheaply produced, usually cost ten cents, and often featured western/frontier stories.
They were so popular because the subject matter was entertaining. They were easy to acquire and cheap to buy. They also, after a time, started telling longer stories that stretched over multiple issues. They are often described as the television of that era.
Kid. Often, dime novels told original frontier stories or were republished versions of previously released reports.
Dime novels usually had around 100 pages or 30,000-40,000 words. Famously, the best-known authors of this genre could write new books on a weekly basis.
Dime novels helped popularize libraries, bookstores, and various forms of reading that were previously enjoyed mainly by the middle and upper classes. Bookstores became places for all people from all backgrounds.
Related Literary Terms
- Penny Dreadful: cheap, serialized form of literature popular in the nineteenth century.
- Periodical: a series of publications that appear at a regular schedule. Magazines are a common example.
- Picaresque Novel: a genre of prose fiction that depicts a roughish hero who experiences episodic adventures.
- Novella: a prose, fiction work that’s shorter than a novel and longer than a short story.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Hero: the principal or primary character of a work.