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American Women's Dime Novel
to women's sensational dime novel romance is divided into eight sections.
You may read it as one essay or jump to various sections by clicking on
the titles below.
of Women's Dime Novels and Cheap Fiction
The Growth in Reading in the Nineteenth Century
The Fiction Boom of the Antebellum Period
Dime Novels Bring the Fiction Boom to the Working Class
Dime Novels for Women
Who Read the Woman's Dime Novel?
Shaping a New Genre: Women's Sensational Romantic Fiction
The Middle-Class Reacts to the New "Degraded" Literature
Sources & Additional Information
of Women's Dime Novels and Cheap
1899, Street & Smith, a key publisher of cheap fiction for women, featured
"The Newsstand's Best Girl" on the cover of their trade newsletter, Street
& Smith's Newstrade Bulletin. Their "best girl" reader was young, well
dressed, and independent. She is depicted wearing a saucy straw hat piled
high with enormous plumes. In her hand she holds an open copy of Street
& Smith's successful women's series, the Eagle Library. She appears
to have been momentarily interrupted from her pleasurable pastime, gazing
directly out at the newsstand owner who has caught her in the act of reading.
Her portrait is featured in the center of a web of smaller portraits of
popular writers of the day whose stories she favors--Effie Adelaide Rowlands,
Bertha Clay, and Mrs. Georgie Sheldon. The position of her portrait and
her intent gaze, only slightly softened by the book coyly brushing her chin,
suggests that by the turn of the century Street & Smith recognized the young
female reader as a central part of the cheap fiction business. They accorded
her a place of respect and urged the newsstand dealer to treat her with
respect as well.
Just how young female readers came to be an important part of the cheap
fiction business and what role reading had in the lives of the young working-class
women who read them is the central concern of the American Women's Dime
Novel Project. It traces the development of the branch of women's fiction
which, barely recognized in 1870, would be slowly developed and shaped through
a variety of publishing strategies, until by the turn of the century it
was a clearly recognizable and profitable addition to the catalogs of several
key cheap fiction publishers.
Growth in Reading in the Nineteenth Century
Prior to the Civil War, reading and publishing
were activities confined to the upper class and upper-middle classes. But
new developments in the middle of the nineteenth century changed that. The
growth of free public education increased the number of Americans who could
read and comprehensive literacy was no longer confined to a privileged few.
A new interest in libraries developed and public and private libraries expanded
rapidly. In addition to the social changes brought about by increased education
and access to reading material, technological changes in industry created
cheaper and faster ways to print books. New kinds of paper brought down
the expense of paper. These technological changes also created improvements
in transportation and distribution making it feasible to get books to the
new readers in ever distant markets. For example, prior to the expansion
of the railroads, publishers relied on rivers to distribute their books.
This meant distribution came to a virtual standstill when the rivers where
frozen. Even improved methods of lightening and a shift from candles to
oil lamps made reading at home in the evenings easier by creating a brighter,
All these factors created a huge new audience
for readings and made books affordable and reading possible for more people
than ever before. There was a huge boom in fiction, and in particular a
craze for women authors. Indeed women's books were the first "bestsellers"
in America. The boom began in the 1850s with books such as The Lamplighter,
The Wide Wide World, and Ruth Hall. At the same time that
Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthrone were selling a few thousand copies
a year, Fanny Fern sold 70,000 copies of her book Fern Leaves and
her book Ruth Hall sold more than 50,000 copies in the first eight
months of its publication. Prior to this, a sale of 2,000 copies had been
considered a good press run. A bit later Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet
Beecher Stowe sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Prior to 1800 only four
books by women were printed. Yet by 1872, 75 percent of the books published
that year were by women (Tebbel 179).
Some people were not pleased about this surge in books by women. Hawthorn
wrote a friend that:
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.
What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the 'Lamplighter'
and other books neither better nor worse?--worse they could not be,
and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000.
His attitude reflected the dual stigma women's fiction labored under as
best selling literature written by women. Hawthrone and some of his contemporaries
did not regard the women's work as serious fiction. This has been a long
lasting legacy that is beginning to change now--slowly.
Bring the Fiction Boom to the Working Class
have come to the end of another year of bookselling, and the lesson
of the year, so far as we can judge, is that Americans want cheap
books. The tendency of prices in all departments has been downward
during the past two years, and the necessity of consulting the popular
demand was never more apparent than at the present time.
Booksellers' Guide, 1873
there was a gradual increase in the affordability and availability of books
in the nineteenth century, prices were still relatively high. In the 1850s
the average book cost one dollar to one and a half dollars. This put books
out of the reach of most working-class readers and even limited the number
of books middle-class readers could consume. The fiction boom created a
new branch of publishers, men who wanted to cash in on this growth in reading
by offering more affordable books. One such venture produced the first dime
novel, Malaeska by Ann Stephens, which was published as a dime novel
by the firm Beadle and Adams in 1860. This book became an instant hit and
Beadle's Dime Novels established the viability of cheap fiction for
"the millions." Beadle and Adams alone published over five million
dime novels between 1860 and 1865.
Beadle and Adams' first flush of success has also been attributed to the
Civil War and the thousands of bored military men who passed the time reading
these inexpensive, light, and portable novels. Publishers soon flooded into
the cheap fiction market and expanded the offerings beyond the cheap ten-cent
paperbacks pioneered by Beadle and Adams, to include cheap nickel libraries,
serialized story papers, and cheap library editions. The term "dime novel"
has come to be the accepted term for these kinds of inexpensive fiction
aimed at a mass audience.
Scholars and collectors looking back on the dime novel might assume that
this was a genre for men only. Collectors of dime novels in the 1920s and
1930s, who did much to preserve them, focused on the stories for men and
boys. They enshrined them as stories of pioneer spirit and celebrated them
as a brash world of "pluck and luck" in which women seemed to have but a
tiny part. What is left out of this history are the stories for women. Charles
Bragin, a prominent collector of dime novels, published a bibliography for
collectors in 1938. He notes that his bibliography only contains "real"
dime novels and that he has excluded certain series that he does not consider
true dime novels. The excluded series are "BEADLES Waverly Library. Fireside
Lib. - these are "love stories" and certainly not dime novel material".
He defines dime novels as "lurid literature" - of the West, detectives,
bandits, etc. - peculiarly American - with lurid cover illustrations."
Novels for Women
Although it is true that "lurid" literature
of the West made up the majority of the dime novels published, particularly
in the first decade of cheap fiction publishing, there were dime novels
for women. Thousands of story papers, dime novels, and cheap library editions
were printed with stories written for, by, and about women. They encompassed
pioneer romances, sensational murder stories, and domestic and society romances.
Typical titles include All for Love of a Fair Face, The Story
of a Wedding Ring, A Charity Girl, The Unseen Bridegroom,
and Only a Mechanic's Daughter. The authors, such as Bertha M. Clay,
Geraldine Fleming, and Laura Jean Libbey, were once wildly popular with
readers, but their fame faded as the dime novel craze ended in the 1920s.
For more detailed information about the publishers,
individual histories are available on the key dime novel publishers for
women. Information is also available for each of the
women's story papers and series printed between 1870 and 1929.
Read the Woman's Dime Novel?
Who were the readers of dime novels for women?
It is hard to say with certainty, but evidence points to young working-class
women in particular. But this does not mean they were the only readers--there
is also evidence to suggest that older women read them, as did middle-class
women and girls. But the primary audience suggests that the main audience
was working-class. It is always difficult to learn more about working-class
readers. They did not leave letters and diaries discussing their reading
practices or favorite novels as middle-class and upper-class readers did.
To try and answer the question of readership, references made by key authors
are helpful, such as this statement from a newspaper article about Laura
saw about her on every hand thousands of young women of her own immature
age...struggling against fearful odds for a poor existence at best.
Being a woman of lively sympathies, she became deeply interested in
the welfare of her toiling sisters everywhere throughout the world,
and she nobly resolved to consecrate her life and her talents to the
amelioration of their condition -- to make her genius the lever which
should raise them to the dignity of true womanhood, unfettered by
the ... chorus of relentless, poorly requited toil.
This overt attempt
to connect Libbey to young working women indicates that the author or
at least the publisher is hoping to reach a working-class audience. The
quality of the bindings also suggests that the readers were of limited
means. The binding, cover, and paper were all very cheap. Even the printing
job was done with the strictest economy in mind. The print was fuzzy with
frequent breaks in the type--a standard which would unacceptable in a
more expensive book. There was also the matter of price. The dime novel
romances for women started at a nickel and averaged ten to twenty-five
cents. Better quality books published at the same time might cost a dollar
or a dollar and fifty cents.
Dorothy Richardson, a middle-class reformer and journalist who wrote about
the working women's experiences in the factories in 1905 also provides
a valuable clue about readership. In her book The Long Day she
chronicled occupations open to young working-class women. She herself
held various jobs around New York City, partaking in the work and meeting
the young women who held these jobs. She often asked them what their tastes
were in reading and when she learned they read Laura Jean Libbey, Charlotte
Brame, and Effie Rowlands she called it "trashy fiction" and encouraged
them to read middle-class favorites such as Little Women or works
by Charles Dickens. Readers apparently did not take kindly to her efforts
to improve their taste. She reported that they rebuffed her attempts to
"elevate" their reading habits and told her not to put on airs with them.
In the conclusion Richardson reveals that she has not changed her opinion
of working women's reading habits. She notes that:
important thing looking to the well-being of the working girl of the
future would be the wide dissemination of a better literature than
that with which she now regales herself . . . Girls fed upon such
mental trash are bound to have distorted and false views of everything.
There is a broad field awaiting some original-minded philanthropist
who will try to counteract the maudlin yellow-back by putting in its
place something whole and sweet and sane.
In the 1870s, women,
especially young women, started to work outside the home in paid positions
in growing numbers. They went to work in sex segregated jobs--usually
in the garment industry or other "women's work," such as working
in a commercial laundry or as a domestic. Life for working-class women
in the 1880s and the 1890s was not easy. They worked in dangerous factories
for long hours--often 12 hours a day for an average work week of 60 hours.
In 1882 the average wage was $5.00 to $8.00 a week. This was not enough
to support themselves or to live alone and most young women lived with
their families or shared rooms with other young women.
The same forces that increased the production and distribution of cheap
fiction also fueled the growth of the cities and most of the working class
dime novel romance readers lived in newly emerging large cities such as
New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. The neighborhoods they lived in were
crowded and extremely dirty. Death rates due to poor sanitation were high.
Many of the dime novel readers were immigrants themselves or the children
of immigrants. Personal accounts of how young women reveal that they felt
they were truly Americans once they could read a dime novel in English
on their own. Rose Cohen, a Russian immigrant, reported, "I felt
so proud that I could read an English book that I carried it about with
me in the street. I took it along to the shop. I became quite vain"
Despite these hardships many young women wanted to work outside the home.
They found new freedoms and opportunities in the city that their mothers
never had on the farm or in a rural village. One of these was the freedom
to date and to select their own marriage partners.
a New Genre: Women's Sensational Romantic Fiction
The sentimentalists popularized the story of a young girl suddenly
adrift and dependent on her own resources in their bestsellers such as
The Lamplighter and The Wide, Wide World. This plot device
remains at the center of dime novel romance. The dime novel romance for
women also shares in what Nina Baym calls the central focus of sentimental
fiction, "the trials and triumph" of women (Baym, 1978, 17). But while
dime novel fiction for women maintains this focus on women's struggles
and trials, it differs in how it represents these experiences by taking
the trials to new extremes. Dime novel fiction does not center on the
psychology of women, their internal development and growth, and the minutia
of daily domestic life--it shifts instead to a world of action--borrowing
from sensational fiction a focus on action and events. Advertisements
for Street & Smith romances promised to avoid "tedious narrative or weak
sentimentalism," while providing "nothing but good strong stories of today"
A main theme in the dime novel romance is of weddings gone wrong--false
marriages, marriages to bigamists, marriages by "false" officials, marriages
to unloved men out of a sense of duty, marriages to the right man for
the wrong reasons, and marriages between lovers who are then immediately
separated. Dime novel fiction is a world in which marriage and sexuality
are associated with danger. Consider these titles--Another Man's Wife,
The Fatal Wooing, In Love's Bondage, Unnatural Bondage.
This is more than a formulaic adherence to the conventions of sensational
literature. For the dime novel heroine marriage is a dangerous sexual
transaction prone to disastrous outcomes. It is an expression of the risk
that the newly emerging active sexuality could represent for working women.
Willful Gaynell by Laura Jean Libbey serves as a good example.
In it the young heroine Gaynell is abducted by the evil factory overseer
and held in captivity until he can arrange a marriage with her against
her will. Gaynell, too innocent to comprehend the full danger of her situation,
slowly realizes her danger and the narrator reveals:
thought forced itself upon her confused brain: Would not a man who
was capable of perpetrating such a daring fraud be capable of any
other deadly sin, and especially against a weak, unprotected girl
whom cruel fate had placed in his power? Gaynell gasped "Oh what shall
I do?...Peril besets me on every side; the hand of fate is thrusting
me on to my doom (66-67).
heroines dealt with unjust relatives, an uncaring society, and their own
flawed characters, dime novel heroines dealt with threats to their physical
self, and in particular, their virginity. This fear of tainted purity
is hinted at in sentimental fiction, but it takes center stage in the
dime novel romance and is perhaps the most defining feature in what separates
the two genres. Because the dime novel heroine's virginity is constantly
under attack and because she will go to any extreme, even death, to defend
it, the dime novel romance is a rebuttal of middle-class notions of a
promiscuous working class.
The focus on protecting virtue at all costs is not a new one, but what
was new is the relentless repetition of this story in the woman's dime
novel fiction and the insistence that virtue matters most of all to these
heroines. It seems likely that that dime novel romances served as a cultural
resource in working women's struggle against repressive and hostile views
of their sexuality and femininity. Characters in these novels were often
falsely accused of losing their virtue and were also always vigorously
defended. In another "Laura Jean Libbey" as the genre came to be known,
Little Rosebud's Lovers, Rosebud's lover roundly defends her from
false charges in this enjoinder, "Hush," he said, "the word disgrace has
nothing in common with my pure Little Rosebud...never say it again!" (149).
And in Willful Gaynell, the hero declares:
another word!..."Neither I nor any other honest man will stand by
and hear aught that is insulting spoken of a pure young girl whose
honest toil wins for her daily bread. My respect and admiration for
a working-girl is profound; every true gentleman will voice my sentiments
As a sign of the
triumph of the working girl, an affirmation that her sexual purity is
intact, and a rebuttal of middle-class disparagements, happy endings were
critical. Louis Gold, Laura Jean Libbey's secretary, noted "Only once
did she write a story with an unhappy ending; the storm of protesting
letters she received discouraged her from making another such blunder"
(Gold 48). Instead, she wrote endings such as these in which Gay's husband
am growing more fond of my darling Little Gay each passing day...I
wish I could speak in a voice every young man in the world could hear,
I would advise them all to search for and choose a bride from among
the working-girls as I did. My life with my sweet, adoring love is
a perpetual honeymoon" ( 249).
Middle-Class Reacts to the New "Degraded" Literature
This theme of protected virtue was lost on the middle class,
however, who focused instead on the dime novel romance's sensationalism
and decidedly unmiddle-class notions of gender relations in which young
girls took active roles in courting men and pursuing love. This new "seductive
and dangerous" literature, in the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1872,
aroused a new round of outcry over the reading choices of women. This
time the outcry was not against women reading in general, as it had been
earlier, but specifically directed against women who read "degraded" literature.
Critics such as Stowe feared that this new genre represented a nation
in moral decline. For the middle class, the dime novel became a site of
struggle as they sought to impose middle-class gender norms on the working
class and to curtail new gender developments among the working class that
allowed women unprecedented freedom in selecting and dating potential
Perhaps the best known critic of dime novel literature was Anthony Comstock,
Secretary and Chief Special Agent for the New York Society for the Suppression
of Vice, and Post-Office Inspector. His attempts to have dime novels removed
from the mails are legendary. In his 1883 book Traps for the Young,
Comstock declared: "vile books and papers are branding-irons heated in
the fires of hell, and used by Satan to sear the highest life of the soul"
(240). Middle-class readers may well have conflated young and working-class
readers by assuming both were uneducated and incapable of making moral
choices for themselves and were thus in need of guidance. Comstock took
aim at dime novels because he shared in the middle-class belief that reading
had a powerful impact on readers. He declared, "Good reading refines,
elevates, ennobles, and stimulates the ambition to lofty purposes. It
points upward. Evil reading debases, degrades, perverts, and turns away
from lofty aims to follow examples of corruption and criminality" (Comstock
Comstock's primary concern were the scenes of criminal behavior in dime
novels, such as counterfeiting, burglaries, abductions, and murders, also
common in women's series, which he feared would lead to copycat behavior.
But he was also concerned with "sexual purity" and made the case that
dime novels "sow[ed] the seeds of lust" (Comstock 177). His worries about
sexual purity were linked to the idea that young people were "abusing"
themselves, thus "lust" in dime novel literature would lead to an enervated
race. His campaign against dime novels captured the middle-class hysteria
about the dangers of reading degraded literature, but it did nothing to
quell the demand for the dime novel fiction.
& Additional Information
Bragin, Charles. Bibliography of Dime Novels, 1860-1928. Brooklyn:
C. Bragin, 1938.
Comstock, Anthony. Traps for the Young. New York: Funk & Wagnalls,
Couvares, Francis. G. The Remaking of Pittsburgh: Class and Culture
in an Industrializing City, 1877-1919. Albany: The State University
of New York Press, 1984. [Not specifically related to the subject of working-class
women, but an engrossing account of how working-class life changed under
Cox, Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood
Mechanics Accents: Dime Novels and Working Class Culture in America.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Eisenstein, Sarah. Give Us Bread But Give Us Roses: Working Women's
Consciousness in the United States, 1890- to the First World War.
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.
Enstad, Nan. Ladies
of Leisure, Girls of Adventure. New York: Columbia University Press,
Erenberg, Lewis. Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation
of American Culture, 1890-1939. New York: McGraw, 1976.
Garrett, Elisabeth. At Home: The American Family 1750-1870. New
York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1990. [Not specifically related to the topic
of working-class women and cheap fiction, but it provides an excellent
sense of the material conditions of home life in the nineteenth-century.
Her section on lighting in the home is particularly useful for imaging
what reading was like without electricity.]
Hughes, Winifred. The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensational Novels of the
1860's. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980. [Sheds
light on the connections between the new genre of women's dime novel romance
and its predecessor, the sensation novel.]
Johannsen, Albert. The House of Beadle and Adams. 3 vols. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
Kaestle, Carl, et al. Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading
Since 1880. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Lehmannn-Haupt, Lehmann, Lawrence G. Wroth and Rollo G. Silver. The
Book In America. New York: Bowker, 1951.
Libbey, Laura Jean. Willful Gaynell. New York: J.S. Ogilvie, n.d.
----.Little Rosebud's Lovers. New York, n.d.
An Economic History of Women in America: Women's Work, the Sexual Division
of Labor, and the Development of Capitalism. New York: Schocken Books,
Noel, Mary. Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly.
New York: MacMillan, 1954.
Pam, Dorothy. "Exploitation, Independence, and Solidarity: The Changing
Role of American Working Women as Reflected in the Working-Girl Melodrama,
1870-1910." Dissertation. New York University, 1980.
Papashvily, Helen White. All The Happy Endings: A Study of the Domestic
Novel in America, the Women Who Wrote It, the Women Who Read It, in the
Nineteenth Century. New York: Harper and Bros., 1956.
Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusement: Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.
Peterson, Joyce, Shaw. "Working Girls and Millionaires: The Melodramatic
Romances of Laura Jean Libbey." American Studies. 1983 24 (1):19-35.
Reynolds, Quentin. The Fiction Factory. New York: Street & Smith,
Richardson, Dorothy. The Long Day. Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 1990.
Rosenzweig, Roy. Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure
in an Industrial City, 1870-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Shove, Raymond. Cheap Book Production in the United States, 1870 to
1891. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1937.
Shudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American
Newspapers. New York: Basic Books, 1978.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in
Victorian America. New York: Knopf, 1985.
Soltow, Lee and Edward Stevens. The Rise of Literacy and the Common
School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Stein, Leon and Philip Taft, eds. Workers Speak: Self-Portraits.
New York: Arno Press, 1971.
Stern, Madeleine. Publishers for Mass Entertainment in Nineteenth Century
America. Boston, G.K. Hall, 1980.
Sullivan, Larry, Lydia Cushman Schurman, editors. Pioneers, Passionate
Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks.
New York: Haworth Press, 1996.
Tebbel, John. A History of Book Publishing in the United States.
Vol. I . New York: Bowker, 1972.
Zboray. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American
Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.