What is both ‘dreadful’ and cheap

Penny Dreadfuls

In the 1830s, increasing literacy and improving technology saw a boom in cheap fiction for the working classes. ‘Penny bloods’ was the original name for the booklets that, in the 1860s, were renamed Penny Dreadfuls and told stories of adventure, initially of pirates and highwaymen, later concentrating on crime and detection.

The Penny Dreadfuls were printed on poor quality paper and aimed primarily at the expanding urban working classes from the 1830s onwards. Some were reprints or reworkings of classic tales whilst others introduced fresh characters such as Varney the Vampire and the London folk demon Spring Heeled Jack.

In an interestingly modern twist Jack shifted from being a villain in the early texts to a hero of the people in later ones. Other popular outlaw characters included highwaymen and pirates. By the 1850s they had a huge readership.


Such publications were viewed with dismay by the moral authorities of Victorian England. They were happy that the dreadfuls encouraged literacy but appalled by their content.


The Dreadfuls were astonishingly successful, creating a vast new readership. Between 1830 and 1850 there were up to 100 publishers of penny-fiction, as well as the many magazines which now wholeheartedly embraced the genre. At first the Dreadfuls copied popular cheap fiction’s love of late 18th-century gothic tales, the more sensational the better, ‘a world,’ said one writer, ‘of dormant peerages, of murderous baronets, and ladies of title addicted to the study of toxicology [the study of poison], of gypsies and brigand-chiefs, men with masks and women with daggers, of stolen children, withered hags, heartless gamesters, nefarious roués, and foreign princesses’.










 Dime Novels


Dime novels thrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States. Erastus Beadle published the first dime novel in 1860, and his quick success prompted many other firms to enter the market. Dime novels were short works of fiction, usually focused on the dramatic exploits of a single heroic character. As evidenced by their name, dime novels were sold for a dime (sometimes a nickel), and featured colorful cover illustrations. They were bound in paper, making them light, portable, and somewhat ephemeral. Publishers issued dime novels in series, numbering each novel individually. (This practice enabled publishers to take advantage of a postal loophole, and send their novels through the mail at the much cheaper rates established for periodicals.) Dime novels were read by literate adults of all ages, although over time young men and boys became the primary audience.



A Dime Western is a modern term for Western-themed dime novels, which spanned the era of the 1860s—1900s. Most would hardly be recognizable as a modern western, but many of the standard elements originated here: a cool detached hero, a frontiersman (later a cowboy), a fragile heroine in danger of the despicable outlaw, savage Indians, violence and gunplay, and the final outcome where Truth and Light wins over all.


Often real characters — such as Buffalo Bill or the famous Kit Carson — were fictionalized, as were the exploits of notorious outlaws such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Buffalo Bill’s literary incarnation provides the transition from the frontier tales to the cowboy story, as he straddles both of the genres.


There were several different formats. From 1860 to roughly 1880, the stories appeared in small pamphlets, generally about 100 pages each, and sold for ten to fifteen cents. These books were issued at irregular intervals, and they were kept in print for years, as well as being reprinted under different titles. Later, the weekly magazine format came to predominate. These libraries were 32 pages, and sold for a nickel or a dime. Both formats were printed on cheap acidic paper, and relatively few have survived the years, despite circulation measured in the tens of millions.




 Dime 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 FaceThe Story of a Wedding RingA Charity GirlThe 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.


Who 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.


The Demise of the Dime Novel

Dime novels were slowly replaced by pulp magazines at the turn of the century, and almost completely vanished by 1920.  Pulp magazines were larger in size, had full-page color pictures, and served as an advertisement for a growing industry.  A secondary reason for the demise of the dime western was probably due to the rise of western films in the first half of the 20th century.

                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012