Dime Novel History

By J. Randolph Cox
Editor of Dime Novel Round-Up

Dime novels were mass-produced, paper-covered booklets (as opposed to hard-cover books) that flourished between 1860 and 1915. Dime novels kept appearing on newsstands until at least 1929, but the original productions ceased after 1915, put out of business by a combination of factors, including a change in postal regulations and competition from fiction in magazines printed on a better grade of paper (“the slicks”).

The focus of DimeNovelCastle.com will concentrate on the weekly adventures of the most popular characters in dime novel fiction from the 1885-1915 period. We would also like to preserve as much of this literary heritage as possible and disseminate it to the public at an affordable price. Thus, they can better acquaint themselves with some of the best-loved characters of these periodicals and joyously revel in their adventures as much as past generations did over a hundred years ago.

Nick Carter

Without a doubt, the best known hero of all the dime novels is Nick Carter, so much so that his name today is synonymous with the term “dime novel”. Nick Carter was a private detective in New York City, who frequently traveled the globe wherever his services were most needed, often encountering fantastic villains. Nick Carter made his first appearance in three popular serials which lasted from 1886 through 1889. The first weekly dime novel that featured him with complete adventures appeared in August 1891 and continued without interruption until October 1915. Afterward he appeared sporadically in pulp fiction for a number of years, and then in a long-running weekly radio series from 1943 to 1955. Although some 1200+ dime novels were issued over 24 years (along with several serials), it is estimated that about 700+ stories were written about Nick Carter.

Old King Brady

One of the very earliest detectives with serial adventures, Old King Brady was a detective who had been on the New York police force for many years when this series began in November 1885. After a few stories that took place in America, the detective began to show up all over the world. While not as brilliant as Nick Carter, Old King Brady seemed to be more human. And no matter what predicaments he found himself in, his astonishing luck and dogged persistence seemed to carry the day and never failed to bring the criminal to justice.

The character appeared more frequently as the 1880s came to a close, and by the early 1890s, he was appearing almost weekly. In 1892 the stories suddenly stopped. Then in 1899 they resumed again, this time in a weekly format entitled “Secret Service” that had him paired with Young King Brady (no relation), and their adventures continued until December 1912.

Old Sleuth

In case you’re wondering, this is where the word “Sleuth” came from. Old Sleuth was actually a young man who masqueraded as an old one. He is perhaps the first (loosely speaking) serial character in detective dime novel fiction, although he never had a weekly series. Old Sleuth first appeared as a serial in 1872. That story was followed by another one in 1875. The next Old Sleuth serial did not appear until 1883, followed by another one in 1884, and finally two more in 1888 and 1891. For historical interest we will try to include all six stories at some point.

Frank Merriwell

Frank Merriwell appeared in the dime novel series “Tip Top Weekly.” Unlike most dime novel series, his stories have to be read sequentially. With a few exceptions, there are not many stand-alone stories. Like a serial, each story is connected to the next. If you try to read one out of context, you are quickly aware that there is a lot of information that you are missing. Little by little, you pick up the threads of the narrative, but it is not the same thing as enjoying a stand-alone dime novel. Our advice: start with the first dime novel and work your way through all 850 issues of Tip Top Weekly and another 136 issues of New Tip Top Weekly. It’s a 19-year weekly serial, but it will demonstrate why this was the most popular dime novel series of the era. Like a serial, you will get to know these characters and will want to find out what happens next. The series began in April 1896 and ended March 1915.

Frank Reade

Science Fiction and Fantasy was never a major component of the dime novel, but there were just enough stories to appeal to the imaginations of the boys of America who read them as a break from the frontier and western stories that flooded the market. There were three principal categories of science fiction and fantasy in the dime novel: boy inventor stories, lost race stories, and marvel stories. Frank Reade was a boy inventor and a predecessor of Tom Swift.

The boy inventor used his inventions, especially airships, on voyages to discover lost races and to visit countries filled with marvels of flora and fauna. The inventions were described with just enough specific detail to make them plausible. The cover illustrations were imaginative and must have been instrumental in attracting the attention of young readers.

Boy inventor stories began with Edward S. Ellis’ “The Steam Man of the Prairies,” first published in 1868 by Beadle & Adams. Ellis established the formula in which the inventor of a wonderful new mode of transportation uses that machine to visit uncharted areas of the United States or the world. During those travels he encountered, fought, and defeated the natives of the new lands. Ellis was probably influenced by contemporary newspaper accounts of a real steam man, the invention of Zadoc P. Dederick of Newark, New Jersey.

Dime novel publishers knew a moneymaking idea when they saw one and did not hesitate to borrow a rival publisher’s products. A decade after Edward Ellis’s story appeared, Frank Tousey began publishing stories about boy inventor Frank Reade. The earliest stories appeared as serials in the story paper Boys of New York, were soon reprinted in the Five Cent Wide Awake Library Awake Library and kept in print in The Frank Reade Library and Frank Reade Weekly Magazine.

Frank Reade, an inventor and adventurer was the creator of the Steam Man of the Plains (to distinguish it from Edward Ellis’ Steam Man of the Prairies), a steam horse, a steam team (two horses pulling a wagon), and something called a steam tally-ho (three horses pulling a wagon to carry the mail). These inventions, created in his New York home workshop, were not true robots, but mechanical figures powered by steam-driven pistons that worked the legs of the man or horse. His first adventure was called The Steam Man of the Plains; or, The Terror of the West, (1876) but the title was altered in later printings. After four adventures the grown up Frank retired and in 1882 turned the inventing business over to his son, Frank Reade, Jr., a true chip of the old block. Frank, Jr. continued inventing and adventuring through nearly 200 stories.

The author of the stories of Frank Reade, Sr., was Harry Enton, a pseudonym of Harold Cohen (1854-1927). His successor on the series and author of the Frank Reade, Jr. stories was Luis P. Senarens (1863-1939), who wrote all of them under the house name “Noname.”

Young Wild West

Young Wild West was an 18-year-old boy who, in 644 stories, traveled from place to place all over the Old West with several companions of both sexes looking for adventure. This series lasted from October 1902 to February 1915. Whether it was defeating a band of outlaws or demolishing a band of Indians, Young Wild West and his friends never failed to come through and save the day.