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Friday, February 28, 2014

Buddy Can You Spare a Dime....Novel?

Although not usually lauded as great literature, dime novels are an interesting part of the Rosenbach collection. The Rosenbach has over 65 dime novels, which is both a sizable number and only a tiny sample of what was produced. The short, generally formulaic, inexpensive tales (often set in the West) were incredibly popular in 19th-century America. The pioneering publisher of the genre, Beadle & Adams, sold 5 million copies of dime novels between 1860 and 1865 alone. The reverse of The Invisible Scout in the series of Munro's Ten Cent Novels lists 204 titles that can be obtained from the publisher and confidently states, "The Novels are the most popular books that have ever been published. The sales of them may be counted by Tens of Millions. there is scarcely a Village or Cabin on this Continent, where Munro's Ten Cent Novels are not as familiar as Household Words."

The Invisible Scout or a romance of early Kentucky
New York: George Munro Publishers, 1871
DN 22

The Invisible Scout or a romance of early Kentucky
New York: George Munro Publishers, 1871
DN 22
Dime novels had a predetermined length of 100 pages. The typesetters for The Invisible Scout seem to have encountered some difficulty in fitting everything correctly into the allotted space. Early on in the book there is often generous, even perhaps excessive, white space on the page at breaks, but on the last page it became clear that they had run out of room and had to squeeze the last few paragraphs in by switching to a smaller type font. Perhaps the author ran over his word limit, or they didn't have the whole text in front of them when they began setting, or maybe it was just a bad day at the very busy printing shop.

Arthur Livermore Meserve (1838-1896), The trappers of Wind River
New York: George Munro, [1871]
DN 23

Although dime novels were often set in the West, one common plot device was that the “western” hero was really a transplanted easterner, who reinvents himself in the west in order to pursue adventure, or to escape a tragic past. Alfred Collins, the hero of The Trappers of Wind River is typical: his clothing and bearing indicate that “his life had thus far not been spent in his present avocation,” but he “was well pleased with the wild freedom of his life; such a joy, as one only experiences upon the plains, and among the mountains of the far West.” Collins’s companions also include other transplants: a comic “Yankee” and an Irishman.

Edward L. Wheeler (1854-1885), Idyl, the girl miner, or Rosebud Rob on hand
The Deadwood Dick Library, II, no 18
Cleveland: The Arthur Westbrook Co., 1899
Gift of Bacon Collamore DN 59

Romantic notions of the west allowed even outlaws to be transformed into heroic figures in the popular imagination. The real Joaquin Murrieta was a vicious killer, whose gang robbed and murdered California Anglos, Hispanics, and Chinese for gain and sport. Frontiersman Henry Love eventually succeeded in locating and killing Murrieta in the San Joaquin Valley. He had Murrieta’s head cut off and preserved in a bottle of alcohol to prove his death.

A year later, newspaperman John Rollin Ridge, who had himself had fled to California after killing a man in Arkansas, invented a legend that Murrieta’s actions were revenge against American miners who had ravished and murdered his wife. Ridge’s sensational tale of a Mexican Robin Hood was turned into an even more popular dime novel and caught on in the East, sparking poems and numerous dime novels, and even appearing in histories of the west. In Idyl, the Girl Miner, Murrieta appears as an oddly sympathetic character, a gambler who gambles away his own child and in his distress asks his wife to shoot him.

This is only a taste of the Rosenbach dime novel collection. To see more, make an appointment to visit our reading room for the chance to delve into other tales of derring-do! 

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia