Dime novel, though it has a specific meaning, has also become a catch-all term for several different (but related) forms of late 19th-century and early 20th-century U.S. popular fiction, including “true” dime novels, story papers, five- and ten-cent weekly libraries, “thick book” reprints, and sometimes even early pulp magazines. The term was being used as late as 1940, in the short-lived pulp Western Dime Novels. Dime novels are, at least in spirit, the antecedent of today’s mass market paperbacks, comic books, and even television shows and movies based on the dime novel genres. In the modern age, "dime novel" has become a term to describe any quickly written, lurid potboiler and as such is generally used as a pejorative to describe a sensationalized yet superficial piece of written work.
Origin of term
It is generally agreed that the term originated with the first book in Beadle & Adams Beadle’s Dime Novel series, Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens, dated June 9, 1860. The novel was an essential reprint of Stephens's earlier serial that appeared in the Ladies' Companion magazine in February, March, and April 1839. The dime novels varied in size, even within this first Beadle series, but were roughly 6.5 by 4.25 inches (17 by 10.8 cm), with 100 pages. The first 28 were published without a cover illustration, in a salmon colored paper wrapper, but a woodblock print was added with issue 29, and reprints of the first 28 had an illustration added to the cover. Of course, the books were priced at ten cents.
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 that was used right up to the very end in the 1920s. Most of the stories were frontier tales reprinted from the vast backlog of serials in the story papers and other sources, as well as many originals.
As the popularity of dime novels increased, original stories came to be the norm. The books were themselves reprinted many times, sometimes with different covers, and the stories were often further reprinted in different series, and by different publishers.
Beadle’s Dime Novels were immediately popular, owing to an increased literacy in the population around the time of the American Civil War, and by the war’s end there were numerous competitors like George Munro and Robert DeWitt crowding the field, distinguishing their product only by title and the color choice of the paper wrappers. Even Beadle & Adams had their own alternate "brands", such as the Frank Starr line. As a whole, the quality of the fiction was derided by higher brow critics and the term 'dime novel' quickly came to represent any form of cheap, sensational fiction, rather than the specific format.
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