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The dime novel is a form of late 19th-century and early 20th-century U.S. popular fiction issued in series of inexpensive paperbound editions. The term dime novel has been used as a catchall term for several different but related forms, referring to
In 1860, the publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle released a new series of cheap paperbacks, Beadle's Dime Novels. Dime novel became a general term for similar paperbacks produced by various publishers in the early twentieth century. The first book in the Beadle series was Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by
This series ran for 321 issues and established almost all the conventions of the genre, from the lurid and outlandish story to the melodramatic double titling used throughout the series, which ended in the 1920s. Most of the stories were frontier tales reprinted from the numerous serials in the story papers and other sources,[notes 2] but many were original stories.
As the popularity of dime novels increased, original stories came to be the norm. The books were reprinted many times, sometimes with different covers, and the stories were often further reprinted in different series and by different publishers.[notes 3]
The literacy rate increased around the time of the
Nonetheless, the pocket-sized sea, Western, railway, circus, gold-digger, and other adventures were an instant success. Author Armin Jaemmrich observes that
Adding to the general confusion as to what is or is not a dime novel, many of the series, though similar in design and subject, cost ten to fifteen cents. Beadle & Adams complicated the matter by issuing some titles in the same salmon-colored covers at different prices. Also, there were a number of ten-cent, paper-covered books of the period that featured medieval romance stories and melodramatic tales. This makes it hard to define what falls in the category of the dime novel, with classification depending on format, price, or style of material. Examples of dime novel series that illustrate the diversity of the form include Bunce's Ten Cent Novels, Brady's Mercury Stories, Beadle's Dime Novels, Irwin P. Beadle's Ten Cent Stories, Munro's Ten Cent Novels, Dawley's Ten Penny Novels, Fireside Series, Chaney's Union Novels, DeWitt's Ten Cent Romances, Champion Novels, Frank Starr's American Novels, Ten Cent Novelettes, Richmond's Sensation Novels, and Ten Cent Irish Novels.
In 1874, Beadle & Adams added the novelty of color to the covers when their New Dime Novels series replaced the flagship title. The New Dime Novels were issued with a dual numbering system on the cover, one continuing the numbering from the first series and the second and more prominent one indicating the number in the current series; for example, the first issue was numbered 1 (322). The stories were mostly reprints from the first series. Like its predecessor, Beadle's New Dime Novels ran for 321 issues, until 1885.
Much of the content of dime novels came from
Most of the stories in dime novels stood alone, but in the late 1880s series characters began to appear and quickly grew in popularity. The original
In 1873, the house of Beadle & Adams introduced a new ten-cent format, 9 by 13.25 inches (229 mm × 337 mm), with only 32 pages and a black-and-white illustration on the cover, under the title New and Old Friends. It was not a success, but the format was so much cheaper to produce that they tried again in 1877 with The Fireside Library and Frank Starr's New York Library. The first reprinted English love stories, the second contained hardier material, but both titles caught on. Publishers were no less eager to follow a new trend then than now. Soon the newsstands were flooded by ten-cent weekly "libraries". These publications also varied in size, from as small as 7 x 10 inches (The Boy's Star Library is an example) to 8.5 x 12 (New York Detective Library). The Old Cap Collier Library was issued in both sizes and also in booklet form. Each issue tended to feature a single story, unlike the story papers, and many of them were devoted to a single character. Frontier stories, evolving into westerns, were still popular, but the new vogue tended to urban crime stories. One of the most successful titles,
The competition was fierce, and publishers were always looking for an edge. Once again, color came into play when Frank Tousey introduced a weekly with brightly colored covers in 1896. Street & Smith countered by issuing a weekly in a smaller format with muted colors. Such titles as New Nick Carter Weekly (continuing the original black-and-white Nick Carter Library), Tip-Top Weekly (introducing
The nickel weeklies were popular, and their numbers grew quickly. Frank Tousey and Street & Smith dominated the field. Tousey had his "big six": Work and Win (featuring Fred Fearnot, a serious rival to the soon-to-be-popular Frank Merriwell), Secret Service, Pluck and Luck, Wild West Weekly,
Perhaps the most confusing of the various formats lumped together under the term dime novel are the so-called "thick-book" series, most of which were published by Street & Smith, J. S. Ogilvie and Arthur Westbrook. These books were published in series, contained roughly 150 to 200 pages, and were 4.75 by 7 inches (121 mm × 178 mm), often with color covers on a higher-grade stock. They reprinted multiple stories from the five- and ten-cent weeklies, often slightly rewritten to tie them together.
All dime-novel publishers were canny about reusing and refashioning material, but Street & Smith excelled at it. They developed the practice of publishing four consecutive, related tales of, for example, Nick Carter, in the weekly magazine, then combining the four stories into one edition of the related thick-book series, in this instance, the New Magnet Library.[notes 8] The Frank Merriwell stories appeared in the Medal, New Medal and Merriwell libraries, Buffalo Bill in the Buffalo Bill Library and Far West Library, and so on. The thick books were still in print as late as the 1930s but carry the copyright date of the original story, often as early as the late nineteenth century, leading some dealers and new collectors today to erroneously assume they have original dime novels when the books are only distantly related.
In 1896, Frank Munsey had converted his juvenile magazine