Although there had been cheap, sensational paper-bound literature for more than 30 years, the true dime novel began to appear regularly in 1860, when Irwin Beadle & Co., a New York publisher, inaugurated a series called "Beadle's Dime Novels." The first of over 600 novels in this series appeared on June 9, 1860. It was the story of Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, written by a popular novelist of the day, Ann St. Stephens. Children, particularly boys, were a large part of the readership of thhis genre from the beginning. Sales of dime novels soon increased thanks primarily to the Civil War; the novels were widely distributed to troops on both sides and were said to be "the soldier's solace and comfort in camp and campaign."1 Because of their popularity, by 1863 Beadle & Co. had many competitors.
Dime novels were largely the work of hacks, one of the more notable was Edward Sylvester Ellis, whose first title for Beadles, Seth Jones, or, The Captives of the Frontier, was so successful that he received Ellis a contract for four novels a year. Other writers who produced this fiction were Mayne Reid, a writer of popular boys adventure fiction, and the young Louisa M. Alcott.
For twenty years, frontier and pioneer life was the favorite subject for dime novels, with Indians making appearances as characters again and again. Many of these stories featured folk heroes such as Buffalo Bill and Davy Crockett. Then in the early 1880's, detective fiction began to take over as the principal subject, eventually overshadowing westerns. Each dime novel was complete in itself, though, as today, there were many sequels containing further adentures of the same characters.
In its earliest years Beadle & Co. insisted on high standards from its authors, and prohibited what it called "common-place stories." There was also a ban on "characters that carri[ed] an immoral taint." Competition, however, soon forced Beadle to abandon these standards. Consequently, the dime novels came to contain much that shocked parents. "Many children, forbidden to read them, took refuge in hay-lofts or, according to one recorded case, in a dog kennel, in order to peruse these thrilling adventures."2 Clergy preached against them; newspapers expressed concern and uneasiness about them, but, they were extremely popular with millions of readers and nothing could keep them out of the hands of young Americans who found them exciting, absorbing and endlessly entertaining.
1Carpenter, Humphrey, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, p. 150.
Copyright © 2001 by Rita Smith
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