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Dime Novels and History Papers for Children

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The 19th century was an important and productive time in the United States for popular literature, thanks to the rise of paperbacks and weekly illustrated newspapers which combined all serialized fiction, gossip, jokes, art and the plot a reader might want. Contrary to what people thought of primarily as literature at the time, structured, serious, and artistically uplifting, these quick and dirty publications were designed to cater to public taste as well and as quickly as possible. In this way, dime novels and their extended family of (guilty?) pleasures stimulated the idea of ​​pleasure reading in America and elevated the public’s role in driving mainstream American entertainment.

These popular titles went by a handful of names and formats: history diaries, dime novels, and nickel weeklies, to name a few of the most important types. These were published at different times in the 19th century, but had some things in common: they were printed inexpensively, were traded for excitement and adventure and, thanks to their affordability and rising literacy, were very, very popular.

Deadwood Dick on the Bridge, or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-up: A Dakota Story, 1899 via UNITED

Hundreds of titles have appeared from the Civil War period, among them the New York Register and Beadles Dime Romans. Readers had a choice of exciting genres, from horror and whodunnit at college fiction and the adventures of avenge the women. Dime’s novels provided a forum for women authors and were often a means for famous personalities to write popular adventures, either under their own name or in address books worthy of pseudonyms. These publications were an amalgamation of pop treats and although adults loved them, it is particularly remarkable that many, for the first time, were specifically written and marketed for children.

papers like Frank Leslies Boys of America, Pleasant hours for boys and girlsand Happy Days weren’t just something to keep young readers busy, but they acted as an invitation into a participatory fandom community off limits to adults. The story articles featured regular contests, riddles, question-and-answer features, and letter sections, providing a place where children could, for a little while, feel empowered and independent. AuthorSara Lindey called history papers a method by which young boys could write themselves well into adulthood. (The audience, at least explicitly, has been very often boys at this time although the newspapers often acknowledged that a sister, friend and family members were of course welcome to take on and enjoy the issue, and many did.)

Red Arrow, the Wolf Demon, or, Queen of the Kanawhas
Red Arrow, the demon wolf, or, The Queen of the Kanawhas, from the cover of the 20 cent novels by Beadle & Adams; flight. II, no. 16, 1870 via UNITED

Dime novels and history articles traded in Indiana Jones-style adventure and nostalgia for the golden glow of pre-industrial frontier America. An 1890 issue of Beadles Half-Dime Bookcase had a genre-typical title, featuring Butterfly Billy, the Pony Rider Detective. The serials described the adventure at sea, adventures with the indiansadventures around a campfire, jungle adventures; generally: adventure! (They probably also invented the concept of the cliffhanger: an author in Monthly Writers in 1918 remembered the anguish of waiting a whole week for a new issue when a writer left his hero hanging from a cliff a thousand feet above the valley for six whole days.)

Famous authors have also engaged with children through the form: PT Barnum, for example, has hired co-authors to help produce animal and adventure stories which had the double advantage of entertaining the children while sneakily announcing its circus. Him and science fiction pioneer Edward S. Ellis titled the Golden Hours Club Fan Convention for children in Brooklyn in 1889.

The Death Rangers (Beadle’s Frontier Series, #77). 1909. through Wikimedia Commons

Dime novels and children’s journals were, like Barnum’s circus, generally daring but never really dangerous, and this was a key tone to strike in the late 19th century. Childhood was beginning to be understood not merely as a miniature adult state, but as a unique period of life during which parents should protect and nurture their children, gradually and safely exposing them to variety and to the danger of the larger world. As Jane Eva Baxter and Meredith Ellis wrote in 19th century childhood, children of the time often became symbols of adult aspirations and concerns, and childhood was seen as an escape and an alternative to the realities of a changing world. Through stories and publicity, childhood was quickly romanticized in parents’ minds and in their physical homes, even when reality rarely lived up to the idealized nursery (which today’s parents will no doubt find familiar!).

Many parents feared that low-art novels were a bad influence. Author Margaret Cassidy notes that these books, designed to slip discreetly into a child’s pocket during the school day, raised many of the same concerns that parents share today about handheld smartphones: she describes 19th century commentaries linking pop fiction to juvenile delinquency and crime, citing an 1884 article who warned: the work of the teacher and preacher is rendered null and void by the Dime Novel. In many cases, however, these publications attempted not only to entertain their young audiences, but also to teach upright and stereotypically masculine moral values: publishers talked to young readers about choosing a good career, building muscle and generally be as daring and strong as the others. characters they read. Story diaries catered to girls as an audience, but to a lesser extent and in an equally gendered way: Lindey Note thatin advice columns, while boys worried about their body size, the majority of girls responded to letters that by far have to do with beauty and ask women to buy books and products.

Dime’s story novels and diaries faded into the 20th century, as other forms of entertainment responded to public demand for popcorn stories, from motion pictures to pulp paperback fiction. paper. But there’s no doubt that without the imaginative pop fiction of the 1800s, today we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the joys of beach readings, romance novels, fan conventions, or comic books.


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