From the mid 19th to the early 20th century, dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and story papers flourished in England and America. The increasing mechanization of the printing process, more efficient distribution methods, and a rising literacy rate all contributed to this publishing phenomenon. Printed on the cheapest of paper, with lurid cover illustrations, dime novels (which found a name in their ten cent price tag) and story papers were considered ephemeral, to be read, often in secret, passed on to friends, or discarded. These delightful items, ancestors of the ubiquitous mass-market paperbacks of today, reveal the reading tastes of a population often neglected in historical studies.
Dime novels and story papers targeted a youthful working class audience with their thrilling, stereotyped tales of Wild West adventures, master criminals, detective stories, historical romances, and working girls and boys in which virtue was rewarded and preserved. Story papers were eight-page weekly tabloids containing similar stories, often with illustrations, as well as articles and items with appeal for the whole family.
Once the bane of the middle class, these little books were considered the corrupters of youth and stepping stones on the path to perdition. Today, dime novels illustrate the reading tastes of an increasingly literate working-class audience, as well as developments in early 20th century printing. They also provide useful resources for scholars interested in popular history and culture, women’s studies, and English and American Literature.
The Special Collections Department at the University of South Florida has a significant collection of dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and story papers comprising well over 8,000 items. The collection includes extensive runs of the “Pluck and Luck,” “Tip Top,” and “New Tip Top” series, as well as many other individual items, the bulk of which represent American publishers.
Now available online: The Dime Novel Collection (Digital Collection)
We have recently begun digitizing the dime novel collection, and selections from over 30 series are freely available online.
Many more titles and series have not been digitized yet; to view full print holdings, click here.