Dime Novels: Chills, Thrills and Rootin’ Tootin’ Cowboys

 

 

Save me, save me.

Bang, bang, bang.

Curses, foiled again!

 

Margaret Brownley

 

Your Victorian ancestor probably had one shocking vice up her leg o’mutton sleeve—or tucked in her apron.  If she was the typical nineteenth century woman she was lashed to social mores in dress, manner and speech but, oh, did she enjoy her lurid dime novels! 

 

The first dime novel “Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter” was published in 1860 and quickly sold 65,000.  That book started a craze that would remain popular until 1915. Melodramatic? You bet, but that was part of the fun.  The stories were lurid—the purple prose outrageous—but readers couldn’t seem to get enough.

 

The root of the dime novel can be traced back to James Fenimore Cooper’s popular Leatherstocking Tales, which romanticized the wild frontier, and explains why most dimers were set in the west. Dime novels actually sold anywhere from a nickel to twenty-five cents–far cheaper than the dollar charged for literary books.  Called Penny Dreadfuls and Shilling Shockers in Europe, worldwide readership was estimated to be in the millions.

 

A series of events led to the proliferation of dime novels. Mandatory education resulted in more literacy and the invention of the steam printing press lowered the cost of printing. Railroads made distribution easier and books more accessible. Sales of dime novels surged during the Civil War. Confederates and Union soldiers were on opposing sides politically but both camps shared the same passion for pirates, mountain men, adventurers and detectives.

 

These formulaic stories ranged between thirty-five to fifty-five thousand words. The small four by six hundred page format could be conveniently carried in pocket or purse.  Most dime novels like the popular Deadwood Dick’s Doom; or Calamity Jane’s Last Adventure, had two titles, probably to persuade readers that the story was too big and exciting for only one. 

 

 From Dimes to Crimes

 

Though the lurid cover art and violent stories were severely criticized by moralists as having a bad influence on youth—and corrupting the delicate brains of women—the stories actually reinforced the values of patriotism, courage and self-reliance.  This, however, didn’t stop critics from blaming them for everything from childish pranks to violent crimes and even the Women’s Rights movement.

 

Voracious Readers Made Cranky Writers

Popular writers were expected to produce a book every few days.  Some writers reportedly could turn out a thousand words an hour for twelve hour stretches.

 

 Eugene T. Sawyer, the so-called “King of Dime Novelists” and author of seventy-five Nick Carter novels,  claimed to have written three 50,000-word novels in a month, and to have finished a 60,000-word novel in just two days—while his wife plied him with coffee.  Considering his remarkable output, perhaps we can forgive  his ill-regard for readers whom he claimed were  “…people of narrow, dull, monotonous lives, who never get any thrills out of real life and must compensate in stories that give them a thrill per page.” 

 

A New Kind of Hero

Books based on real people such as Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson and Jesse James were especially popular, though the stories were purely fiction. The good guys battled evil and no bad deed was left unpunished. Chaste damsels in distress needed rescuing and dashing heroes were only too happy to oblige. By today’s standards the books were racist, but they reflected the times.  They also helped to establish a new social order where males were judged by deeds rather than social status.  For this reason the western hero became the symbol of the ideal man. 

 

One dime novel featuring Kit Carson had an unexpected impact on him. He chased down a group of Apache Indians to rescue a kidnapped white woman only to discover her dead.  In her belongings was a copy of the book Kit Carson, the Happy Warrior.  He later told the story in his autobiography: “We found a book in the camp, the first of the kind I had ever seen, in which I was represented as a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundred. I have often thought that Mrs. White must have read it, and knowing that I lived nearby, must have prayed for my appearance in order that she might be saved. I did come, but I lacked the power to persuade those that were in command over me to follow my plan for her rescue.”

 

The Demise of the Dime Novel

By the late 1800s pulp magazines replaced dime novels in popularity and the world was getting ready to greet a new type of story-telling—the motion picture.

 

Coming in June 

 

A Vision of Lucy (A Rocky Creek Romance) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Margaret has published more than 46 books and is a N.Y. Times Bestselling author and two-time Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist. She writes historical novels set--where else?--in the Old West! She has written for a day time soap and is currently working on a new series. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.

18 thoughts on “Dime Novels: Chills, Thrills and Rootin’ Tootin’ Cowboys”

  1. Fun post, Margaret. I’ve been watching the 1990’s TV western series The Young Riders on Netflix with my daughter, and we recently saw an episode with a dime novelist who made trouble for one of the riders with his inflated fiction. People read it, then came gunning for the rider, thinking he was a gunslinger they could gun down and make a name for themselves. Makes you wonder about the impact of fiction on real people, huh?

    I’m also amazed at that word count output. Amazing! I barely manage a book a year. Whew!

  2. Karen, thank you! I’m sure dime novels and their tales of “savage” Indians and “white” heroes shaped Easterners view of the west. Certainly dime novels created many western myths. I don’t know if today’s fiction has as much impact.

  3. I’d sure love to get my hands on an authentic Dime Novel. I’d love to see how those stories unfolded. I think it’s so interesting how the women loved them but had to hide her vice. I pity those poor writers though. They sure had a hard row to hoe. A thousand words an hour. My gosh! Sure makes me feel like a slug.

    I can’t wait for your new book to release. You write the most amazing stories.

  4. Margaret, have you ever read any dime novels? I always wish I could read a few of them. There are probably reproductions on Amazon. It would be fun to see what they are really like.
    I love reading more about dime novels. And…can you IMAGINE 50,000 words in two days.

    Holy moly.

  5. Linda, thank you. Some dime novels are available for free on the Internet. Deadwood Dick’s Doom; or Calamity Jane’s Last Adventure is one that you can read on line but there are others.

    Hugs

  6. I can see some connections to romance novels here, Margaret. Romance, adventure, escapist fiction has always had its place, and it’s not a bad place. My stories will never win a Nobel Prize, but if they can give my reader some relaxation and enjoyment after a long, hard day, that’s something of value.
    Thanks for a great blog.

  7. Hi Mary,
    I just finished writing a book with a dime novelist heroine for my new Brides of Last Chance Ranch series. Reading dime novels was part of my research. Fortunately, I was able to find what I needed on line.

    It’s hard to believe how hard those early novelists worked–and many wrote by hand. I get cranky just thinking about it.

    Thanks for writing and, again, congratulations for being a RITA finalist. Enjoy!

  8. Elizabeth, I think you may be right. Romance novels have been criticized for creating myths about love,marriage and happily-ever afters, but I prefer to think we’re creating hope.

  9. These sound like such great fun! Thanks, Margaret, for a rolicking post. 60K in two days? Yowza. And by hand yet.

    I always contend that people who criticize romance novels have never read them. Give me a happy ending any day. I don’t like to feel bad or depressed when I finish a book or movie, which is why a lot of today’s offerings don’t appeal to me.

    Great post.

  10. Margaret,
    Love this post. I am like Tanya–I must have a HEA–don’t like to come away feeling depressed or like there is no hope. I do write a lot of cliff hangers in my books, but it’s always resolved at the end. Now, I think the dime novels always or usually ended with a cliff hanger, right? So that people would buy the next one, and the next one, etc. in the series. I am going to look up some of the reproductions online and read some of those. Very interesting post!
    Cheryl P.

  11. Tracy, you’re right; some things never change but it’s not just romance novels. I know someone whose son turned in a a book report on Wimpy Kid and that didn’t set right with his teacher. Then they wonder why boys won’t read.

  12. Thank you for another enjoyable post.
    Mr. Sawyer may have been grouchy, but he was right. Most of us do live “narrow, dull, monotonous lives.” Getting a bit more excitement via the written page isn’t a bad way to overcome that.
    I am always looking for old books. With the number of dime novels printed, you would think more of them would be around.. Would love to get my hands on a gewlll

  13. Hi Patricia, laughing about your grouchy comment. You’re right, most of us are rather dull compared to the books we read. You can find some dime novels on line but i’ve not been able to find hard copies. Maybe in somebody’s attic?

  14. I have five dime novels all ftom the eighteen hundreds includimg kit carson custers last stand the james boys in minnasota california joe ftank james and diamond dick forsale all in mint condition all orignals and two five cent wild bill and calamity jane or annie oakly dont remember75 each 541 771 7564

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