Guided Tour of a Cover

This tour focuses on the three parties involved in producing dime novels: Publishers, Authors, and the Dime Novel Heroes themselves. They are all represented on the sample cover image below. Please click on any section in the cover for more information.


The Publisher: Beadle and Adams
and the Beginnings of the Dime Novel

Fenimore Cooper

The publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle played a central role in the early history of the dime novel (the firm became 'Beadle and Adams' after Irwin sold his interest in 1863). The Beadles' publication of Malaeska in June of 1860 marks the debut of the dime novel. Written by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, an established domestic novelist and editor of The Ladies Companion, Malaeska tells the tragic tale of a beautiful Indian maiden who follows her heart and marries a white settler. The public found the novel's romantic sensationalism enormously appealing and Malaeska sold over 65,000 issues within the first few months of publication.

The origins of the dime novel date back to the first half of the nineteenth century. Novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was instrumental in popularizing tales of Indians battling frontiersmen in his Leatherstocking Tales and high seas adventure in The Pilot (1823). These stories romanticized American history and the settling of the Far West and were important precursors of the dime novel. Numerous authors followed Cooper's lead, producing works that dramatized the tensions between the wild, untamed frontier and rapidly encroaching civilization.

Seth Jones

With America's population fast approaching twenty million by the 1830s, there was a growing audience for popular literature. Although readership had been greatly restricted due to the high cost of hardcover books and the dearth of public libraries, the introduction of the steam rotary press resulted in affordable and abundant reading material that could be distributed by a growing network of railways. The success of story papers such as Brother Jonathan Weekly, first published in 1839, provided an impetus for Erastus and Irwin Beadle to start selling novel-length stories for a dime each. Fueled by the success of Malaeska, the Beadles published several novels in quick succession and came up with an ambitious advertising campaign heralding the release of Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier, in the summer of 1860. The adventures of Seth Jones, a brave and virtuous backwoodsman from New Hampshire, proved an enormous commercial success and was one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite stories. Written by a nineteen year old New Jersey school-teacher named Edward Ellis, Seth Jones sold six hundred thousand copies and was translated into several languages.

The Beadles' rapid success led them to publish a dime novel every two weeks. After a year or so, the schedule was accelerated to produce a novel per week. The subject matter of these early novels was patriotic and centered on adventure and romance. Stories of pirates on the high seas, courageous freedom fighters in the French and American Revolutionary Wars, and Indians raiding white settlements on the Frontier issued from the presses in rapid succession. Although the setting and historical time periods of these adventure stories changed weekly, the moral fiber of the hero remained constant: he was ever the patriotic young man who tirelessly battled vice and upheld virtue.

Sales for dime novels surged during the Civil War. The pamphlets were eagerly consumed by Confederate and Union soldiers alike, as well as a growing number of working class readers. Erastus Beadle opened a London office in 1862, hoping to introduce his dime novels to English audiences. The books were printed in England from the American plates and became popular as "shilling shockers" and "penny dreadfuls." Encouraged by the Beadles' early success, men such as George and Norman Munro, Francis Street and Francis Smith, and Frank Tousey entered into the world of dime novel publishing, which resulted in heated rivalries and ever more sensational stories in an effort to capture readers.

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Albert Johannsen. The House of Beadle and Adams and its Dime and Nickel Novels. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

Daryl Jones. The Dime Novel Western, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1978.

Edmund Pearson. Dime Novels. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1929.

Quentin Reynolds. The Fiction Factory, New York: Random House, 1955.


The Author: Colonel Prentiss Ingraham and the World of Dime Novel Authors

  Writing well over one hundred Buffalo Bill stories, plays and short sketches, Colonel Prentiss Ingraham was among the most prolific dime novel authors of his day. His life was as colorful and adventurous as those of the heroes in his stories. Born in Mississippi, Ingraham fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and later under Juarez in Mexico. He traveled the world as a soldier of fortune, fighting in Europe, Turkey, and Cuba before returning to the American West, where he met the famed scouts Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok.
  Ingraham typically wrote one story of fifty to seventy thousand words per week and received two to three hundred dollars per story. Many writers churned out such epics on a weekly basis, their work greatly facilitated by the introduction of the typewriter in the 1870s. Adhering to a prescribed format, the less imaginative writers produced stories with conventionalized plots, stereotyped characters, and standardized settings. While this assembly-line approach resulted in much second-rate hackwork, the number of top authors who wrote for dime publishers (at some stage in their careers) is impressive: Louisa May Alcott, Horace Greeley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Upton Sinclair, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson--to name but a few. Robert Bonner, the publisher of the New York Ledger was legendary for attracting big name writers with lucrative salaries. His coup was undoubtledly securing Edward Everett, the distinguished scholar, Governor of Massachusetts, President of Harvard, and U.S. Senator, who agreed to write a short weekly article for Bonner's story paper in return for a $10,000 donation to the Mount Vernon preservation society, of which Everett was President.
  Authors published under numerous pen names to prevent readers from learning the true volume and velocity of their output, but one suspects readers were seldom fooled by the deception. Francis Worcester Doughty, a noted author of works on numismatics and archaeology, went by the rather unimaginative nom de plume of "a New York Detective" in writing the "Old King Brady" stories. Frederic Merrill Van Rensselaer Dey, who wrote the Nick Carter detective stories, churning out an average of 25,000 words per week for seventeen years, went by an astonishing number of different pen names, including Marmaduke Dey and Frederic Ormond, as well as the more generic A Celebrated Author, and the simple Author of "Nick Carter." When publisher Francis Smith decided to issue the Nick Carter Library as a weekly in addition to the other Nick Carter Stories, not even Dey could meet the demand, and an entire team of writers was assigned to the task.
  Horatio Alger was one well-known author who wrote under his own name. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a Unitarian minister, Alger author over one hundred books for young boys, beginning with "Ragged Dick; Or, Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks." Alger and Gilbert Patten, who authored the Frank Merriwell series under the pen name of Burt Standish, were the most popular writers of the 1890s, the last great decade of the dime novel.

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J. Randolph Cox. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.

John Cutler. Gilbert Patten and His Frank Merriwell Saga. Maine Bulletin: University Press, 1934.

Albert Johannsen. The House of Beadle and Adams and its Dime and Nickel Novels. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950. Volume two has an extensive section on dime authors.

William Miller. Dime Novel Authors, 1860-1900. Grafton, Massachusetts: R.F. Cummings, 1933.


The Hero: Buffalo Bill and the
Dime Novel Western

  The Western was the first major narrative genre to develop in the dime novel. As settlers moved West in epic numbers during the mid-nineteenth century, readers were eager for tales of the dangers and heroics of Frontier life. In December 1869, "Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men" debuted as a serial in Street and Smith's New York Weekly. Written by the American adventurer Edward Judson under the pen name Ned Buntline, the stories featured the colorful exploits of William Cody (1846-1917), the famed Western scout, buffalo hunter and showman who Judson nick-named "Buffalo Bill."
  As the depiction of the dashing and fearless young scout on the cover of Beadle's Boy's Library suggests, Buffalo Bill's popularity was based on a romanticized notion of his character and greatly embellished accounts of his exploits. Shown confidently astride a raging bull, rifle and knife at the ready, Buffalo Bill subdues the wild beast by virtue of his great strength and courage. Countless stories appeared about Cody and other famed frontier scouts during the 1860s-1880s, a period when Whites settled the West in record numbers and came into increasing conflict with indigenous Native Americans tribes. Such stories provided an arena in which pressing moral dilemmas could be repeatedly played out and brought to successful conclusions that affirmed the values and attitudes of an increasingly capitalist, urban, industrialist society.
  Authorship of the Buffalo Bill stories passed to Colonel Prentiss Ingraham after Judson's death. Ingraham was one of the most popular and prolific writers of his day and wrote over one hundred stories between 1879-1904. His conception of Buffalo Bill differed from Judson's in several respects. The hero's coarse, ungrammatical language gave way to a more refined, elevated speech, and the use of dialect was restricted to his band of companions for comic relief and to mark their lower class status. Buffalo Bill also became more human in some respects. Although he would never succumb to the vices of other men and forswore drink, tobacco, and women, he did form emotional attachments now and then and make slight errors of judgment.
  Following the Civil War and America's rapid industrialization and urbanization, the popularity of Buffalo Bill and dime novel westerns began to decline. By the 1880s, Westerns were eclipsed by stories of urban life featuring heroes such as detective Nick Carter and Secret Service agent Old King Brady.

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Daryl Jones. The Dime Novel Western, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1978.