In the late 1800s the most popular form of fiction was the dime novel.
The New York firm of Beadle and Adams published the first dime novels in 1860. Millions were eventually published between the Civil War and World War I. The Beadles’ publication of “Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter” in June 1860 marked the dime novel’s debut. It relates the tragic tale of a beautiful Indian maiden who follows her heart and marries a white settler. A total of 65,000 copies were sold during the first six months of its publication.
The dime novel as Beadle designed it ordinarily ranged from 25,000 to 30,000 words. Conveniently sized and shaped for the pocket, it promptly became an inseparable part of the outfit of every well-equipped young American boy - and not just a few girls. Hundreds of thousands copies were printed in several foreign languages.
By 1843, novel reading was the most common recreation in civilized lands, though some were shocked and worried over the situation. First, it’s important to note that they should correctly be called “dime,” not “dimestore” (as some fans do). The dime store (or five-and-ten) was the invention of F. W. Woolworth, who opened the first one in February 1879. But the dime novel, which was never to be found in the stock of a “respectable” store like Woolworth’s, had a long history reaching back well over almost 20 year before that.
Every week new dime novels hit the newsstands and general stores. At the beginning of the publishing frenzy, the books were printed on the cheapest newsprint available, lacking color and illustrations. Soon publishers realized that a colorful cover catches the eye and would sell any story, no matter how poorly it was written.
In a sense, the dime novel was the direct ancestor of today’s popular genre paperback - the mystery, suspense, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, Western or “men’s adventure” novels, which some readers feel compelled to apologize for reading, and to which many critics and teachers continue to give short shrift, although technically and otherwise they’re likely to be the equal of anything “mainstream.”
What critics totally ignore is that many of these books don’t get published in “legitimate” hardcover except for book club editions and that they fill a niche and a need - just as the dime novel did.
The ‘dimer,’ as such, had its heyday from about 1860 to 1915, but its real roots were in the late 1830s to early ‘40s, when technological advances in printing allowed the rapid and inexpensive dissemination of book matter for the first time.
Most of Beadle’s dime novels and at least the early numbers of other firms’ copies were about American history. They had titles like “Bill Biddon, Trapper; or Life in the Northwest,” “The Frontier Angel,” “A Romance of Kentucky Ranger’s Life,” “Life on the Old Southwest Border,” “Indian Jim,” “A Tale of the Minnesota Massacre,” “The Lost Trail: “A Legend of the Far West,” “The Hunter’s Escape:” “A Tale of the Northwest in 1864,” “The Rival Scouts … A Story of the Siege and Fall of Fort Presq’Isle,” “The Mystic Canoe: A Romance of One Hundred Years Ago,” and “The Quaker Scout of Wyoming: A Tale of the Massacre of 1778.”
In one edition, it had a redskin hero, after whom the book was named. Indians were written about as human beings.
It was some time in the 1870s 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 1880s, 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.”
About this time, 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). Among the historical figures who appeared in Beadle’s various series, usually as heroes, were Indians, Sitting Bull, scouts and pioneers such as Deadwood Dick, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok , Seth Bullock and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Until Owen Wister gave the genre respectability with “The Virginian” in 1903, all Westerns were dime novels. They were also ethically sound, teaching lessons of manliness and avoiding scenes of vice. No expression used in them would have shocked even the most prudish, and sex was almost entirely excluded.
The hero was always everything a hero should be, and the unbelievably bad villain was always confounded in the end. The deterioration of the dime novel began in the early 1880s and was accelerated with the introduction of detective, gamin, and bootblack stories, but Beadle, which published its last books in 1905, never offered any of these.
In the early 1900s, pulp magazines, comic books and paperback originals were introduced to the public and the dime novel faded into the sunset just like so many of its stories.
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 1960s a few of the Buffalo Bill and Young Wild West series were reprinted as conventional paperbacks; these may be somewhat easier to acquire.