Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Hey, what cha' reading??? Bit of history about penny dreadfuls.

Having been ill for several days, I found myself quickly growing weary of television which led me to wonder, what did those confined with illness do to amuse themselves? I’m sure they played their share of checkers and chess, but games required two. I can’t imagine mothers, with much work to do, would wish a second child confined to the sick bed. In my imagination, dear Mother would have told the child to read.

Before the Civil War, literacy was at its highest point. People devoured stories, magazine, newspapers, anything they could get their hands on to enrich the small amount of time they had free. In the late 19th and early 20th century, some of the most popular fiction stories were found in what was known as dime novels or Penny dreadfuls. Granted, they were not Oliver Twist, nor the Great Gatsby, but there were good sized novels of mid length, around 100 or so pages,  available to anyone by mass publication, and didn’t take a long time to read. 

1860 saw the publication of Beadle’s Dime Novels publishing their first story as a feature in Ladies Companion Magazine entitled Malaeska, the Indian Wife of a White Hunter written by Ann S. Stephens. The piece sold over 65,000 copies. Demand had been found! Now, they needed to fill it.
A variety of genre’s awaited readers young and old, Westerns – Wild Bill, Jessie James, Billy the Kid often making the outlaw heroic. It took Owen Wister’s The Virginian to give westerns respectability. (By the way, my favorite)  Railway stories, circus stories (who doesn’t remember Toby Tyler) gold diggers, even Revolutionary heroes in Liberty Boys. For those authors reading this, notice how many of these genres seem like tropes in today’s writing. Lonely wives on ranches, cowboys, farmers, school children, and travelers devoured the tales. By 1874, their popularity was such that the covers no longer were plain yellow paper with woodcut artistry. Now, they sported color illustrations and were published sometimes weekly.

They weren’t all salacious stories, for the most part an underlying theme was that the hero must teach masculine ideals, they avoided vice, they might love their horse more than the heroine and there was certainly no hokie - pokie going on behind the bunkhouse. Villains, ah, villains, always got their come-upance at the very end of the story.

The heyday for the dime novels spanned the years 1860 – 1915. They were replaced by pulp magazines and by 1926 the dime novel has met its end. 

Until next time…

Below are a few selected covers from an image search

 Love the men and the title on the first.http://r.search.yahoo.com/john-adcock.blogspot.com

And the yellow a copy of the first story... Imagine in its day and time with the social morals it was quite a story.  Malaska's image can be found on Wikipedia. 

And I would be amiss if I didn't include a pony express cover.  muraniapress.com

1 comment:

Agnes Alexander said...

Great blog, Nan. I knew people liked to read then, but never realized to what an extent. Thanks for posting this.