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Dime Novels – Telling the Story of the American West

The first dime novels were published not long before the American Civil War began. The stories themselves, and who read them, might surprise you! They include my lead character in my latest Redemption Mountain book, Forsaken Falls.

Beadle & Co and other Publishers

Brothers Irwin and Erasmus Beadle, along with Robert Adams, printed the first dime novel under their publishing house, Beadle and Adams, in 1860. Between 1860 and 1865 alone, they published more than five million dime novels. Unfortunately, Irwin had a falling out with his brother and pulled out of the partnership.

Malaeska, Published by Beadle & Co.

Afterward, he and George Munro, a bookkeeper at Beadle and Adams, formed their own publishing house, Munro. Munro called their dime novels Ten Cent Novels.

Street and Smith was another dime novel publisher. Their house handled fiction as a commodity, giving editors strict authority over the authors’ works. Street and Smith expected their authors to follow specific formulas in the plot lines and writing styles.

Common Topics and Tropes

Initially, these yarns were about American Indians, but once the Indians were moved onto reservations, the public’s fascination with them began to dim. Subsequently, dime novels switched to Wild West stories of cowboys, gunslingers, desperados, and train robbers.

A recurring hero like Buffalo Bill, Deadwood Dick, Buckskin Sam, or Roving Joe frequently starred in fast-paced blood and thunder action-adventure series created around these heroes. These dime novel series earned a massive following of loyal readers.

Dime novel narratives were amazing adventures of a hero or heroine who often found themselves in the midst of a moral dilemma. The novels had morals, the heroes championed virtue over vice, and the good guys always won in the end. Sometimes, the main character was a historical figure, sparking the young readers’ interest in history.

Dime novels geared toward women pulled from the social experiences of the readers with themes of romance and marriage.  A lot of these tales involved a romance between a working-class girl and a noble, plus marriages or betrothals gone awry.

Rather than a happy ending, these romantic adventures usually ended in disaster, as a lesson to working-class women that the evolving idea of acceptable female sexuality was in fact, unacceptable. In these stories, heroines protected their virtue at all cost, a point strongly emphasized for the sake of the readers.     

Buffalo Bill by Prentiss Ingraham

How Long Were Dime Novels?

Dime novels varied in length, even in the first Beadle series. But generally, they ran about 100 pages and were 6.5 inches long and 4.25 inches wide.

Who Read Them?

Throughout the Civil War, a lot of soldiers read dime novels during the long periods of boredom that came with camp life. Civil War soldiers even traded the books back and forth. They took these novels with them when they returned home and reentered civilian life.

Dime novels also appealed to the lower classes, mostly boys and young men. But, grown men and some groups in the middle class enjoyed the books as well. Dime novels were also popular with women. Young, working class and middle-class girls and women relished stories of romance in the pioneer territories, thrilling murder mysteries, and society romances.

Who Authored Dime Novels?

Horatio Alger

Horatio Alger, a famous dime novel author, an alumna of Harvard Divinity School, and a Unitarian minister, wrote under his own name. Alger authored over a hundred books for young boys, beginning with Ragged Dick or Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks. Also, Horatio Alger, along with a co-writer, Gilbert Patten, authored the Frank Merriwell series under the pen name of Burt Standish. These two, Alger and Patten, were the most popular writers of the 1890s, the final grand decade of the dime novel.

Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger

The adventures of Seth Jones, a daring and honorable backwoodsman from New Hampshire, became a massive commercial triumph. It was even one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite stories. Edward Ellis, the author of Seth Jones, was a nineteen-year-old school-teacher from New Jersey. Seth Jones was so successful that six hundred thousand copies of the book were sold, and it was translated into several languages.

Seth Jones by Edward Ellis

Prentiss Ingraham was one of the most popular dime novel authors. He created the famous character, Buffalo Bill. Ingraham wrote more than 600 published books by 1900, as well as several plays and poems. However, the most incredible thing about Prentiss Ingraham was the life he led. Before he became a writer, Ingraham lived through harrowing experiences including capture and escape from Union forces when he served as a Confederate scout in the Civil War.

After the war, Ingraham continued to fight in battles in Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Upon coming home to the United States, Ingraham journeyed west, and in 1884, he met William Buffalo Bill Cody and worked as an agent for his Wild West Show. When he returned east, Ingraham began to write plays, poems, and dime novels, pulling from many of his own life experiences for his action stories. Ingraham died in 1904, but his Buffalo Bill stories were reissued in multiple dime novel publications well into the 20th century.

Though more men than women wrote dime novels, female writers successfully established themselves in this field. For instance, the very first author of a Beadle Dime Novel was a woman, Ann S. Stephens. She wrote Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter in 1860.

At the time, she was already known as an accomplished writer and editor of Ladies Companion and Graham’s Magazine. Stephens not only wrote other dime novels, she also penned many popular books and plays.

Fanny Fern

Author, Fanny Fern sold 70,000 copies of her book, Fern Leaves and 50,000 copies of Ruth Hall.

Harriet Beecher Stowe sold hundreds of thousands of copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, seventy-five percent of the books published in 1872 were written by women.

 

 

Some other well-known dime novel writers were Thomas C. Harbaugh, Albert W. Aiken, Edward L. Wheeler, Joseph W. Badger, Jr., and Colonel Prentiss. Also, the number of top-notch authors who wrote for dime publishers at some point in their careers is impressive. Among them are Louisa May Alcott, Horace Greeley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Upton Sinclair, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

 Stories of the American West dominated the market until the 1880s when they were surpassed by tales of urban life with heroes like detective Nick Carter and Secret Service Agent Old King Brady.

Forsaken Falls, book nine in the Redemption Mountain Historical Western Romance Series is now available!

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2 Comments on "Dime Novels – Telling the Story of the American West"

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Brenda W
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Interesting about the Dime Novels I’ve always heard about.

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