Dime Novels

Calamity Jane, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, heroines, detectives, highwaymen, sailors – all strutted through the pages of these ephemeral publications, called dime novels because of their cost. Thousands of these luridly-covered titles were produced starting in 1860, the first novel being Malaeska, the Indian wife of the white hunter, written by Mrs. Stephens. A brief but informative history of this type of work, which was a catchall phrase to describe several variants, is online; a timeline of its development is also available. A major examination of this type of publication can be found at House of Beadle & Adams Online, an electronic version of the 1950 multi-volume examination of this important publishing house for dime novels.

The largest single online collection of dime novels, over 7000 titles, is housed at Northern Illinois University – Nickels and Dimes; the site contains practically every number of Beadle’s Dime Library, totaling 1099 issues. You can search  by genre, series, or author. My particular favorite is the “sea stories” section with works authored by such luminaries as Ned Buntline and Victor Hugo.

Another large collection reposes at Villanova University – Dime Novel and Popular Literature – that also includes the precursors to dime novels. Numerous series are represented here as well as titles translated into foreign languages. It also hosts the Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography an ongoing project that aims to comprehensively list all dime novels ever published. Using the menu’s full text option, you can call up more than 9,000 full text issues culled from the various online collections.

Almost 1,300 issues are digitally reproduced at the University of South Florida. What caught my eye here is the March 3, 1885 edition of the Old Sleuth Library entitled The Bay Ridge Mystery“; Bay Ridge being that part of Brooklyn where I grew up.

Over 1700 dime novel covers are found at Syracuse University.

Many of these novels are labeled romances featuring women in all sorts of guises. While many people associate these works with just the exploits of frontiersman or cowboys, nothing could be further from the truth. Women and the World of Dime Novels from the American Antiquarian Society seeks to correct this misconception and presents pertinent essays along with selected novels to buttress its argument that dime novels are not solely a male reserve. American Women’s Dime Novel Project is also a must stop, though at the time of this writing some features are not functional.

The British analog is called “penny dreadfuls“. While some of these are found in the above collections, it is but a very small sample. And I have yet to find an equivalent repository of these unique items. A few can be read here and you can find the original Sweeney Todd appearing in The String of Pearls that was serially issued in 1846/47.


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