They’re b-a-a-ck. Those Ten Cent Thrills Known as Dime Novels.

Your Victorian ancestor may have had one shocking vice up her leg of mutton sleeve. She probably read dime novels.

The dime novel craze began in 1860 with the publication of Ann S. Stephens’ book Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. The success of the book resulted in publishers and writers jumping on the bandwagon.

Critics called the popular books immoral and blamed them for society’s ills. Nevertheless, dime novels sold millions, and Civil War soldiers were the prime audience. Confederates and Union soldiers were on opposing sides politically, but both camps shared the same passion for pirates, mountain men, adventurers, and detectives. The melodramatic books with the lurid covers and purple prose helped them fight the boredom of camp life.

Now, these same books can help Pandemic stay-at-homes combat monotony. The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded a grant of $350,000 to Northern Illinois University to catalog and digitize its collection of more than 4,400 dime novels and story papers. Stanford and other universities are also participating, and books are available at dimenovel.org.

With millions of books to choose from on Amazon, why would anyone want to read books written more than 150 years ago with no known literary value?

The answer is that these books are a treasure trove of cultural heritage and social history.  These stories also reveal the political attitudes of the past and gender stereotypes.

The depiction of Indian women was criticized by the Toronto Times in 1892. “It is a deplorable fact. She is always named Winona, the daughter of a chief, and, inevitably, her ill-fated love for a white man drives her to suicide or death; and, in these stories, the Indian maiden always dies.”

With all their faults, the books did society a favor; they established a new social order in which males were judged by deeds rather than social status. For this reason, the western hero became the symbol of the ideal man.

Books featuring real people like Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, and Jesse James were especially popular. One dime novel featuring Kit Carson had an unexpected impact on him. According to the story, Carson chased down a group of Apaches 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.”‘

Even though a woman started the dime novel craze, female writers were not taken seriously and were even resented. That didn’t stop readers from scooping up their books. By 1872, an astounding seventy-five percent of published books were written by women.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of many male writers who lamented the popularity of female fiction. In a letter to a friend, Hawthorne wrote: “America is now wholly given over to a dammed mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.”

Now, thanks to the National Endowment for Humanities, the works of those early “scribbling women” will now be given a second chance.

Would you be interested in reading one of these books?  Why or why not?

Amazon

B&N

Website | + posts

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.

31 thoughts on “They’re b-a-a-ck. Those Ten Cent Thrills Known as Dime Novels.”

  1. I’d probably read one or two, but all of you ladies here at P & P, and other modern day genre authors write so eloquently that I’m afraid the writers of long ago days just wouldn’t be in the same caliber as you.

    • Janine, I agree. It is interesting to see how writing has changed. Writers had more time back then to tell their story. Today, there are so many more distractions, writers have to capture a reader’s attention by the first sentence.

    • Hi Estella, I agree. Comparing to today’s writers is part of the fun. One of the main differences I noticed is that the pacing is much slower. Sometimes, I find myself growing impatience. I guess that makes me a product of the 21st century.

  2. Oh that would be wonderful and I guess in a way, I have read many Indiana style books back in my earlier reading days!!

  3. I would love to read a dime novel! Just for the sake of history and how the author transcribed his/her thoughts. A treasure.

  4. As a writer of “fluff” according to the elite of literary society, I probably would dime novels. It’s funny how some things seem to stay the same.

  5. I’d definitely read them. You can learn so much about what a society thinks by reading the popular literature of the time. (Honestly, some of the descriptions remind me of fanfiction, which I confess to loving.)

  6. what a wonderful post today. i would love to read a dime novel. they always sounded so interesting. I wonder how the writing has changed over the years. I love reading so this would be a fun diversion
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

  7. Yes I would and I do. I collect old books. The oldest paperbacks I have are from the early 40’s or so I think. Mostly detective or exotic location stories. Hardcover, I have books that go back to the mid-1800’s. They are such a wonderful window into the era, both the real culture and the fictional side of things. I remember reading a book that was written in the mid-1940’s and ended shortly after Pearl Harbor. It was a wonderful look at the social structure and norms of the time. It ended with the family and friends setting off on the paths they would all take to be part of the war effort. I would share the title, but my dog chewed it up shortly after I finished it. She has never chewed up a book prior to that. At least I got to finish it. There is a definite “feel” in the prose of these older books that reflect much of the time in which they were written. I read a little romance I found in a box the other day. It was written in 1972 and honestly would never make it it today. The bullying attitude of the “hero” and the “poor little woman” treatment of the heroine are so against the representations of characters today. I will be checking out these dime novels. The stereotypes found in books of every era are very interesting.

  8. I would love to have several of these originals in my possession. I mention them in my WIP and have mentioned them in others. They made a tremendous impact on the reading public. Anyone who loves history must find them important. Thanks for the enlightening post.

  9. These would make for interesting reading for sure. I know the style of writing has changed dramatically over the years and I’m afraid these dime novels that held such rapt attention in their era wouldn’t have the same impact today. Thanks for sharing!

Comments are closed.