Treasure or Trash?~by Susan Marlow

Kaetlyn, me, and Star

Ready for a literature quiz?

During the 1800s and early 1900s . . .

  1. Which books were despised by “high moralists,” condemned by preachers on Sunday, frowned upon by schoolmasters and schoolmarms on weekdays, and dismissed by critics and librarians as destroyers of the character of our nation’s youth?
  2. Which books were eagerly consumed by bankers and bootblacks, lawyers and lawbreakers, soldiers and sailors, working girls and housewives and youths alike?
  3. Which books did schoolboys conceal behind geography books during class?

The answer to all three quiz questions is: the “dime novel,” the paperback answer to fiction in the 19th century. Extremely popular, publishers churned out Crack Skull Bobhundreds of titles—sometimes one new title a week—during the second half of the 1800s.

So, whose great idea was it to capture the hearts and minds of readers with colorful, romantic adventures and (in the process) take American literature in a new direction? A direction that lives on today in the “trade paperback” market of genre books, like—you guessed it—the romance novels of the authors of Petticoats and Pistols.

A couple of fellows by the names of Beadle and Adams came up with the idea in 1860. They took the popular “serial” papers (a chapter a week in a newspaper) and decided to publish complete novels instead—books anyone could afford: ten cents. Eventually, as other publishers caught the vision and competed for readers, Beadle and Adams introduced the half-dime library, as well.

Malaeska, the first dime novelTheir first published book, Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, tells the tragic tale of a beautiful Indian maiden who follows her heart and marries a white settler. Tragic because she dies in the end. How many authors here allow their main characters to die at the end of their romance novels? Hmmm . . .  I thought as much.

Malaeska was a runaway hit right off the bat. It sold 65,000 copies during the first few months. (Considering the entire population of the U.S. was only twenty million, I’d say the book did well.) It didn’t hurt that Beadle and Adams chose a popular literary author, Ann Stephens, to pen the first book.

With that success under their publishing belts, the company issued several more dime novels in quick succession. One of their most popular was Seth Jones, or The Captives of the Frontier. This paperback novel was President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite story. It was written by a nineteen-year-old school teacher named Edward Ellis and sold over 600,000 copies. Go figure . . .

So, what made these books so popular? Besides the subject matter—pirates on the high seas, courageous freedom fighters in the French and Indian War, and Indians raiding white settlements—dime novels were packed with patriotic themes, high morals, virtue, and “the good guy always wins, while the bad guy always gets what he deserves.”.

Why then, were preachers and teachers and “high moralists” so against these dime novels? There was no vice and very little passion in the books—squeaky clean we would call them today. The only thing I can figure is that fiction in general was on the “DO NOT READ” list of many folks during the 1800s. Here is a thought from the Reverend J.T. Crane from Popular Amusements magazine, 1869, which sums up why our youth (or anybody else, for that matter) should stay away from novels:

  • Let our young people be constantly on their guard against the mental enslavement which marks the confirmed novel-reader. Common novel-reading is a fearful evil, and against it there are arguments numerous and weighty, which all will do well to heed.

You can read the entire article, but I warn you, it is lengthy:

Just for fun, I have included the opening lines to a dime novel. To read theDeadwood Dick's Doom entire novel, go here: DEADWOOD DICK’S DOOM

Chapter 1

Too Late for the Stage


Did you ever hear of a more uninviting name for a place, dear reader? If so, you could not well find a harder role, where dwelt humanity than Death Notch, along the whole golden slope of the West.

It was said that nobody but rascals and roughs could exist in that lone mining-camp, which was confirmed by the fact that it was seldom the weekly stage brought any one there who had come to settle . . .

To see a few popular covers for women’s romance dime novels, go here:

Mischievous Maid FayneROMANCE COVERS

If you would like to read a popular story from the “romance” dime-novel genre, click here: Mischievous Maid Faynie



The main character in my Circle C Adventures books, Andi Carter, loves to read dime novels. I haven’t quite figured out how to incorporate such a “vice” into a storyline yet, but with three older brothers (all eligible bachelors, by the way, ladies), Andi has access to such reading.  


trouble with treasureIn honor of the release of my new CCA, Book 5, Trouble with Treasure, I’m offering up an autographed copy. This one’s full of rattlesnakes, bank robbers, gold-hunting, and survival in the Sierra range of 1880s California. Good, western fun. Read the first chapter at


To enter the contest, just comment and let us know on which side of the “dime-novel debate” you would find yourself (and why), if you were living during the 1880s. Try and imagine yourself with young teenagers. Would you want them to read these books? Would you take the “high road” or would you embrace the dime-novel “mania”?

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39 thoughts on “Treasure or Trash?~by Susan Marlow”

  1. I wouldn’t have a problem with the dime-novels. I’ve always been so thrilled that my daughters wanted to read that I’ve never been that restrictive with them. Of course it wasn’t a problem because they never wanted to read anything I considered inappropriate for their age.

  2. I believe that we would have made each dime novel into a family event with discussion and questions. We always read to our children when they were little. We read chapter books before they went to bed at night. We talked about the book through out. What they liked, didn’t like, why, what they would have changed…

    We encouraged reading! They all love to read! However, their tastes vary. Today with jobs and school, finding the time to read is the main factor.

  3. Hi Susan! Great post! I think I’m going to put a dime novel in my hero’s saddlebag. It would add to his character for sure.

    I’d have no trouble with dime novels, but I can understand people reacting with concern to something unfamiliar. It’s important that we read / watch/ listen to new things for ourselves and with open minds.

    My kids both loved to read. If we’d been a family in the 1880s, there would have been dime novels everywhere.

  4. Welcome Susan, Reading material back then was so scarce anyway,they usually just got to read the Bible,so I can see how this would be shocking to parents,but to a teen I can see the attraction,I would have been a dime novel reader for sure!even if I had to hide it,its okay to dream then an now

  5. Hi Susan!
    I’m sure I would have been of the dime novel reader bunch as well.
    Read your first chapter–looks like it’s going to be a good book, I’ve just started reading fiction again and have not read one about a young girl yet–so that’s a fun change! Liked your youtube post with the pictures too!

  6. People have always liked the qualities that made the dime novel popular or today romance novels/otherpopular genres. It’s huma nature.

  7. What a great post today. Dime novels attract me greatly since reading is such an integral part of my life, these books would be something that I would have appreciated.

  8. Dime novels would be fun. I can remember my great grandmother talking about dime novels even just before her passing at 104. I am always so amazed when I see pictures of books with prices on them.

  9. This informative post was interesting and dime novels would have been in my home. They are important and would add to my reading choice. Any family would have been lucky to read these wonderful novels.

  10. it’s hard to put yourself there, it was so different than today, but I think I would have said ok, as we would want to have some fun.

  11. I would have been a reader! My mother always said that I read everything I could get my hands on. The cereal box as I ate brecfast, the wrapper off the tp, anything that had words I read. Still do even though I have read the cereal box thousands of times, I still find myself reading it as I eat.

  12. Since I like to read anything I can get my hands on I think I would have been one to read dime store novels. Thanks for the great post.

  13. I am intrigued with this great post about Dime Novels. Thanks for introducing me to these lovely books which I think are wonderful.

  14. Do these still exist somewhere? I’d love to read a few of them. See the differences in what was considered popular fiction from then to now.

    If you’ve read older fiction, like The House of the Seven Gables…very slow paced. Meandering. Lots of scenery description and backstory and interior musings.

    I wonder if these were different.
    Were villains tying women to railroad tracks?

  15. I would have loved for my children to read the dime noval! In todays time I don’t think they read enough! To much TV and computer games, face book,ect. I would love to read one of these dime novals today just to see how much different it is then todays books.

  16. Greetings Susan and welcome to the Junction! We’re so glad you could join us. I love the idea of quick, entertaining fiction that nearly everyone could afford. And I’d definitely be a reader!

  17. Susan, welcome to P&P! We’re always happy to have guests come by to discuss various things in addition to their releases. I find Dime Novels such an interesting subject. I know if I lived back then, I’d have devoured every one that I ran across. People had very little access to reading material unless you lived back East or was very wealthy and could afford to have things shipped.

    Thanks for bringing this topic to P&P. Your book looks really good. I hope you’re able to get it in the school libraries. I’m glad kids have a link to what the old West was like.

  18. Susan,
    I would have had my stock-pile of dime novels. Chances are I would have been reading the adventure ones. For the younger set, I think they morphed into Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys series. I have looked at your Circle C books for my grandson. He is a reluctant reader, and this series would fit his likes perfectly. Children today have so many other things to keep them occupied, it is hard to get them to sit and read. Since he does have problems reading, I’ve introduced him to audio books. He has loved those.
    I need to check these out for the library where I work. There are a lot of parents concerned about what their children are reading.
    Many of them I’m certain would never allow a dime novel through the door:-)

  19. Hi Susan,

    I would probably pick the dime novels. I would probably read all of them because I love any kind of book but my favorites are any with animals, romance, and mystery.

    I homeschool my daughter and I plan on getting your books to teach her. I cannot say just when I can purchase them because my entire family has been laid off but as soon as I can I will get them for her.

    She loves to read and she saw your books and wanted them so badly

    Thanks for bringing up such a great topic.

    Walk in harmony,

  20. they would have been a part of my library if I could have afforded them; they sound very clean reading to me.
    Enjoyed the romance covers and the book titles.

  21. I too say yes for the dime novel. Hey, I like variety and reading material probably wasn’t easy to get so I’m all for any kind of books 🙂

  22. I imagine I would have had a pile of dime novels hidden under my bed. I have the need for reading fiction.

    I even wrote a book where my heroine is a dime novelist. It’s called Wild At Heart. 🙂

  23. With so few other amusements available, especially in isolated areas, it’s no onder dime novels were popular. If I’d been a young girl back then, I’m sure I would have devoured dime novels, by stealth if necessary. Great post!

  24. I loved reading about the dime novels…I would have been one of the young girls reading them…so much excitement…

  25. What FUN comments on the Dime Novel “debate.” I would have said YES as well. 🙂 And Mary, you can find these Dime novel stories on the web. I was amazed. But I can’t say much about their covers. Pretty “colorless” (except for the scalping cover. LOL)
    Thanks for inviting me to the junction!

  26. I would be on the read-it side of the dime novels. I always read a lot and even remember when my mother would get a new Sears and Roebuck catalog and my sister and I would read all of the descriptions of the items in it. We were looking for words we didn’t know their meaning. And of course, we read the Farmer’s Almanack.

  27. I’d be having the dime books. I’d be reading where ever I could. Covers sure have changed over the years. I loved reading your post.

  28. Great post, Susan. I think I would have adored and devoured dime novels. My mail-order-bride heroine Minda read one on her sojourn to Nebraska to marry the wrong guy LOL. Welcome to the Junction. Hope to see you here again.

  29. Dime Novels would have been something that I would have read, enjoyed and savored. Then I would cherish them and keep them as treasures.

  30. I would definitely have been a dime novel reader,
    had I lived in that time. As it is, along with my books from the library, I read comic books & when
    I reached junior high school, I began reading Louis
    L’Amour and Zane Grey.

    Pat Cochran

  31. My parents raised me believing in (Moderation In All Things)and believed that it (Wasn’t what you knew that would hurt you, but what you didn’t)…Therefore, I think I would have to side with the readers of the dime novels. Knowledge, whether you agree or disagree…Is Bliss…And a without it, leads to life of dependence on those that have it…IMO.

  32. You know what, Pat? I think comic books might be the “dime novel” of the 60s and 70s. Boy, did I EVER devour comic books: Gold Key, 12 cents! Illustrated Classics, Fantastic Four, and so on! Gives me warm fuzzies to remember all those good times reading comic books.

  33. Dime novels? Yup. I was raised on Zane Grey books that inspired me to write western novels (mine are Christian. I’d have read them first, because I wouldn’t have been able to keep my hot little hands off them. Those and many camping trips in the western states with Dad, Mom, and my two brothers–Dad loved western history–gave me a solid foundation on which to build my many western novels. BTW, Susan K. Marlow’s wonderful Circle C Adventures are great for all ages!

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