Dime Novels

The Dime Novel Represented a Revolution in Publishing

Cover of a 19th century dime novel published by Beadle and Adams
Cover of a dime novel published by Beadle and Adams. Getty Images

A dime novel was a cheap and generally sensational tale of adventure sold as popular entertainment in the 1800s. Dime novels can be considered the paperback books of their day, and they often featured tales of mountain men, explorers, soldiers, detectives, or Indian fighters.

Despite their name, the dime novels generally cost less than ten cents, with many actually selling for a nickel. The most popular publisher was the firm of Beadle and Adams of New York City.

The heyday of the dime novel was from the 1860s to the 1890s, when their popularity was eclipsed by pulp magazines featuring similar tales of adventure.

Critics of dime novels often denounced them as immoral, perhaps because of violent content. But the books themselves actually tended to reinforce conventional values of the time such as patriotism, bravery, self-reliance, and American nationalism.

Origin of the Dime Novel

Cheap literature had been produced in the early 1800s, but the creator of the dime novel is generally accepted to be Erastus Beadle, a printer who had published magazines in Buffalo, New York. Beadle's brother Irwin had been selling sheet music, and he and Erastus tried selling books of songs for ten cents. The music books became popular, and they sense there was a market for other cheap books.

In 1860 the Beadle brothers, who had set up shop in New York City, published a novel, Malaeska, The Indian Wife of White Hunters, by a popular writer for women's magazines, Ann Stephens.

The book sold well, and the Beadles began to steadily publish novels by other authors.

The Beadles added a partner, Robert Adams, and the publishing firm of Beadle and Adams became known as the foremost publisher of dime novels.

Dime novels were not originally intended to present a new type of writing.

At the outset, the innovation was simply in the method and distribution of the books.

The books were printed with paper covers, which were cheaper to produce than traditional leather bindings. And as the books were lighter, they could easily be sent through the mails, which opened up great opportunity for mail-order sales.

It's not a coincidence that dime novels became suddenly popular in the early 1860s, during the years of the Civil War. The books were easily to stow in a soldier's knapsack, and would have been very popular reading material in the camps of Union soldiers.

The Style of the Dime Novel

Over time the dime novel began to take on a distinct style. Tales of adventure often dominated, and dime novels might feature, as their central characters, folk heroes such as Daniel Boone and Kit Carson. The writer Ned Buntline popularized the exploits of Buffalo Bill Cody in an extremely popular series of dime novels.

While dime novels were often condemned, they actually tended to present tales which were moralistic. The bad guys tended to be captured and punished, and the good guys exhibited commendable traits, such as bravery, chivalry, and patriotism.

Though the peak of the dime novel is generally considered to be in the late 1800s, some versions of the genre existed into the early decades of the 20th century.

The dime novel was eventually replaced as cheap entertainment and by new forms of storytelling, especially the radio, movies, and eventually television.

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McNamara, Robert. "Dime Novels." ThoughtCo, Mar. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/american-dime-novels-1773373. McNamara, Robert. (2017, March 30). Dime Novels. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/american-dime-novels-1773373 McNamara, Robert. "Dime Novels." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/american-dime-novels-1773373 (accessed March 24, 2018).