Dime Novel Collection

photoFrom the mid 19th to the early 20th century, the fiction genres known as 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 are illustrative of the reading tastes of an increasingly literate working-class audience, as well as developments in early 20th century printing. They have also proved 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 is fortunate to have a significant collection of dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and story papers comprising some 310 boxes and 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.

Permission to reproduce from the collection is limited and determined on an item-by-item basis.

Dime Novels and Genre Fiction

Many of today’s fiction genres saw their beginning in publications like dime novels. The Dime Novel Collection includes examples of the following genres:

Westerns: The romantic myth of the American West is one of the largest generic forms in dime novels, and much critical attention has been paid to the genre. While the popularity of the western story has declined since the 1950s, it was so popular during the dime novel’s heyday that in some circles ‘dime novel’ was synonymous with western stories. Dime novel westerns feature the usual themes of cowboys, Indians, ranching, the gold rush, mining, trains, gunmen, and outlaws. Famous characters like Buffalo Bill are often featured.

Mysteries and Detective Stories: As urban areas grew they became the setting for many new adventures featuring detectives. Stories about urban life, crime, crminals, street children, and rags-to-riches sagas often accompanied mystery stories.

Science fiction: Dime novels and story papers provided a forum for the development of proto-science fiction. In science fictionesque dime novels and story papers, readers discovered visions of the future. These stories often feature a love of technology coupled with a fear of its repercussions. Along side marvelous adventures in steamships and airships and other forms of fantastic technology were stories of world-destroying weapons and mad scientists. Less fantastical tales featured engineering marvels, inventions and inventors, and submarines.

Exploration: In addition to stories of the wild west, dime novels often featured the adventures of globe-trotting explorers who traveled to exotic locales and mingled with stereotypically portrayed natives. Subjects and geographic areas are often the arctic regions, ocean exploration, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Because much of the travel depicted in these stories was by sea, pirates feature largely, as do African safaris, indigenous people, and all things exotic.

Military fiction: This genre often describes life in military academies, navy life, and wars, and may include topics like military discipline, technology, strategy, and code of conduct.

Sports stories: Many sports – including baseball, football, track and field, and cycling – found their way into the story papers, usually in connection with school teams. School stories were also enormously popular. They dealt exclusively with the life in boys’ boarding schools; girls do not seem to have attended similar institutions in the world of the story papers.

Historical fiction: Dime novels often depicted historical eras; popular settings included the Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, and the Spanish American War. Far from being objective or precisely researched historical tales, these dime novels depict how later generations viewed various conflicts. They often included depictions of kings, presidents, generals, and other leaders; political views; romanticized figures, and espionage. Slavery, both in America and in other parts of the world, was occasionally featured. The California and Alaskan gold rushes proved enormously popular fodder for the story papers; less daring backdrops included tales of the temperance movement.

Critical Resources

Some of these resources circulate; others are housed in Special Collections and may be used in the reading room only. For more information on circulation, click on the call numbers.

Dime Novel Round-Up
PS374.D5 D48

Eight Dime Novels – compiled by Everett Franklin Bleiler
PS658 .B55

The Dime Novel in Children’s Literature – Vicki Anderson
PS374.D5 A53 2005

The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book – J. Randolph Cox
PS374.D5 C69 2000

Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks – edited by Larry E. Sullivan and Lydia Schurman
PS374.P63 P56 1996

Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America – Michael Denning
PS374.D5 D44 1987

The Dime Novel Detective – edited by Gary Hoppenstand
PN374.D4 D55 1982

The Dime Novel Western – Daryl Jones
PS374.D5 J6 1978

Dime Novels, or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature – Edmund Pearson
PS374.D5 P4 1968

Bibliography: Dime Novels, 1860-1964 – Charels Bragin
Z1231.F4 B82 1964

The House of Beadle and Adams in Its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature – Albert Johannsen
Z1231.F4 J6 1950

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