October's exhibit explored the Library's dime novel collection. Dime novels were "a series of paper-covered booklets, published at regular intervals, and numbered in sequence" (The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book by J. Randolph Cox). Though at first they cost just a dime, eventually they ranged in price from five to twenty-five cents.
They covered a wide range of subjects: detective stories, westerns, damsels in distress, femmes fatales, circus stories, sports stories, piracy, smuggling, comic stories, science fiction, love stories, railroading, firefighting, fantasy, adventure stories, and sea stories, plus many more. Featured subjects changed over time as society changed, mirroring popular interests of the day.
As dime novels grew in popularity, they were often blamed for the delinquent behavior of young men, as is evidenced by headlines from the time period. Even with contemporary writers pointing out that there was little to no evidence that such claims were true, the stigma stuck. This image of dime-novel-reading hooligans has lasted through today, even though there's little truth to the claim. In fact, not long after dime novels stopped being printed, many people started to collect them -- one famous collector of dime novels was Franklin D. Roosevelt!
While it is commonly thought that kids and teenagers were the primary audience for dime novels, many were also targeted for adults. Evidence of this can be found in the advertisements located within many of these novels. Some of the products being advertised included: Sohmer pianos, gluten suppositories, insurance, corsets, and pills for gastrointestinal issues!
Originally referred to as "yellow backs," dime novels were initially published in plain yellow paper covers. Later, artwork was added, eventually resulting in the multicolored and compelling covers for which dime novels became famous. Edmund Pearson's Dime Novels; Or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature also provided cover images from popular dime novels and contextual information about each cover. The popularity of dime novels led American humorist Arthur Guiterman to pen a poem in tribute to dime novels, which was republished in Edmund Pearson's Dime Novels; Or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature in 1929.
Although many of these books were written by semi-professional writers looking to make some extra money, well-known authors would also find their work published by dime novel publishers. One such example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; a handful of his works can be found in our Dime Novel Collection.
Exhibit curated by Matthew Laudicina and Elizabeth Jakubowski