Combine cheap wood-pulp paper, prose deemed by noted critics to be "turgid — even bombastic — involved, needlessly parenthetical, and superabundant in epithets", and an plot that manages to combine adventure, sentiment, and the forbidden thrill of miscegnation, and what do you get? A best-seller. Ann Stephens was the author of Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, an 1860 reprint of an 1839 piece written for The Ladies’ Companion. Published by Irwin Beadle, it was a massive success, selling upwards of 60,000 copies, a respectable number even today. The price of Malaeska gave birth to a term: Ann Stephens had written the first dime novel. Irwin Beadle and his brother Erasmus, as Irwin Beadle and Co., published early dime novels, although the firm of Street & Smith soon came to dominate the field. From a distance, the dime novel might resemble the pulps of pre-World War II America in their formulaic appeal to a mass audience. But although they were never great art, their publishers felt that the dime novels — often not so much novels as magazines that serialized work in weekly installments and carried the same name regardless of the author — had a certain moral seriousness. Consider Erasmus Beadle’s rules for prospective authors:

  • We prohibit all things offensive to good taste in expression and incident—
  • We prohibit subjects of characters that carry an immoral taint—
  • We prohibit the repetition of any occurrence which, though true, is yet better untold—
  • We prohibit what cannot be read with satisfaction by every right-minded person—old and young alike—
  • We require your best work—
  • We require unquestioned originality—
  • We require pronounced strength of plot and high dramatic interest of story—
  • We require grace and precision of narrative, and correctness in composition.
  • Authors must be familiar with characters and places which they introduce and not attempt to write in fields of which they have no intimate knowledge.
  • Those who fail to reach the standard here indicated cannot write acceptably for our several Libraries, or for any of our publications.

Beadle seemed to think the dimes were, to some extent, moral instruction: a young reader could discover the rewards of good behavior from Horatio Alger‘s youthful rags-to-riches heroes or learn to emulate the idealized all-American lad, Tip Top Weekly’s Frank Merriwell.

Children comprised a significant portion of the audience for dimes: witness the popularity of Super Inventor Frank Reade Jr., a globetrotting boy genius. Those dime novels not about youngsters were often highly fictionalized stories about Westerners and frontiersmen: Jesse James; Calamity Jane; Buffalo Bill Cody; Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys; Davy Crocket. Sometimes there was more serious fare, but the bulk was genre literature: Westerns, adventure novels, mysteries, and romances. Around this time, British magazines and "penny dreadfuls" began publishing the tales of Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street, an enormous commercial success.

The decades-long popularity of the dime novel began to wind down after the turn of the century, as an increase in postage cut into publisher’s profits and the birth of the nickelodeon began to cut into the dime novel’s juvenile audience. They had reshaped the ideology and symbolism of the American West, and they had given Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser a chance to earn an honest paycheck. But the lasting influence of the dime novels was to emerge from long-running characters such as Old Sleuth, Nick Carter, and Old King Brady. The era of the pulps — of Sax Rohmer‘s sinister Dr. Fu Manchu and Hugo Gernback‘s shining scientifiction — was soon to be underway.