We're spoiled today. If you want entertainment, we got movies, video games, books, music, comics and many other things. You want a story, you have many choices.
People in the 19th century weren't so lucky. With entertainment being far more limited, you had to learn to enjoy what little you could get your hands on. Around the time of The American Civil War, literacy in the US began to increase considerably, and just around then, a new form of entertainment was invented. The dime novel.note
Dime novels were basically books aimed primarily at immature adults but soon became popular with preteen and teenage boys, and they were largely pulp adventure fiction. Tough men going on exotic adventures around the world, fighting villains wherever they went - it was basically "turn off your brain" stuff, but provided the adrenaline rush and imagination boys wanted.
High-brow critics quickly derided the quality of the storytelling, and "dime novel" soon became a derogatory term for cheap, sensationalistic stories in general.
Dime novels were highly sought after. In tough economic times, boys would sometimes get together with their friends to scrounge up enough money to be able to afford a dime to buy the novels, and then try to get as much enjoyment out of them as possible. Nowadays, a book that lasts just as long barely costs anything by our current standards, and if you enjoy reading, you probably own a lot of them anyway. But back then, any entertainment you could get your hands on was precious material, and dime novels fit a specific need.
The dime novel itself changed in format a number of times. The term referred not only to 10 cent books as described above, but both 15 cent books, and also to "story papers", a sort of newspaper-like format that contained multiple stories encompassing detective serials and globetrotting adventures. Due to changes in publishing, the price of these dropped to 5 cents, but the term "dime novel" remained in use.
Dime novels were hardly known for their characterization. Plot was king, and the whole point was to be exciting and entertain the newly literate audience.
Some of the most prominent Dime Novel characters were:
- Nick Carter: A Great Detective (1886).
- Old Sleuth: Another Great Detective (first appearing in 1872).
- Old King Brady: A Great Detective (1885).
- Old Cap Collier: A Great Detective (1883).
- Deadwood Dick: An adventurer operating in The Wild West (1877).
- Diamond Dick: A fighter for justice in The Wild West (1878).
- Frank Reade: I-Jr-III: Teenage inventors (see below).
- Jack Wright: Another teenage inventor (1891).
- Frank Merriwell: An Ivy League (he was a Yale man) athlete and adventurer (1896).
- Buffalo Bill: American Folk Hero whose stories take place in The Wild West (1882).
As time went on, the dime novel's niche was gradually superseded by the Pulp Magazine format.
The dime novel style of storytelling lives on even today. Cliffhanger movies tell essentially the same types of stories as dime novels, and the Indiana Jones and The Mummy movies are essentially the dime novel in big budget form. While our entertainment today is much more sophisticated, there's still a market for low-brow high adventure stories. Heck, even many of today's video games have roots in these.
These types of works tended to contain:
- Cattle Punk: A lot of the young inventors' Verne-Tech was used out West.
- The Chick - The defining characteristic of many of the female characters. Sadly, their sheer lack of characterization resulted in many boys objecting to any female character on the basis that she would 'inevitably' turn out to be bland and uninteresting.
- Distressed Damsel - Women did not get much in the way of important roles, that was for sure.
- Follow the Leader: Dime Novel heroes were this to many characters who came after them. Nick Carter, for example, was a strong influence on Doc Savage and The Shadow. Teen Genius characters like Frank Reade and Jack Wright provided the foundation for Tom Swift.
- Historical-Domain Character: A modified version of the trope. Many Dime Novels were fictionalized versions of the exploits of people who were still alive at the time: Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Kit Carson, etc.
- Lost World: Many Dime Novel heroes ran into one of these. Nick Carter, for example, ran into a lost civilization of Old Norse speaking Amazons in Bolivia in 1907.
- Master of Disguise: A very common Dime Novel trope.
- Mighty Whitey - The hero naturally tends to become this when he visits any exotic land.
- Steam Punk: The Dime Novel lived this trope, as exemplified by characters like Frank Reade, Jack Wright, Tom Edison Jr, etc.
- Submarine Pirates: Tom Edison Jr fought a Yellow Peril villain named Kiang Ho of the Golden Belt in 1892 who commanded a submarine called the Sea Serpent.
- Teen Genius: Jack Wright, Frank Reade, etc.
- Train Job - When focusing on famous outlaws of the time, particularly Jesse James.
- The Wild West: Many of the characters had at least the occasional adventure in The Wild West.
- Yellow Peril: Cropped up from time to time.
Dime Novel Characters:
There were three generations of Frank Reades appearing in the Dime Novel era: the father (the first Frank Reade, in 1876), the son (Frank Reade, Jr, the most long-lasting of the three, first appearing in 1879), and the grandson (Frank Reade III, in 1899). All three are essentially the same in terms of characterization. They are young inventors who create Steam Punk machines and weapons and go off on wild adventures. The following tropes largely concern Frank Reade, Jr, the most famous and enduring of the three:
- Big Apple Sauce: The first Frank Reade lives in New York. Frank Reade, Jr, though operates in nearby Readestown.
- Canon Welding: Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett's FRANK READE: Adventures in the Age of Invention does a bit of this, tying the Reade family to other Dime Novel inventors (Jack Wright, Electric Bob) as well as to their own fictional Victorian robot, Boilerplate.
- Cattle Punk: Frank's Wild West adventures fall under this category.
- Direct Line to the Author: Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett's Steam Punk biography FRANK READE: Adventures in the Age of Invention does this to the Dime Novel Reade family. The book is written as a factual account of the famous Victorian family of inventors, one that will provide the full truth behind the Dime Novel stories.
- Steam Punk: Along with Jules Verne, some of the earliest examples of this trope. Frank Reade's inventions are legion: flying machines, steam-powered proto-robots ("the steam-man of the plains," who can shoot fiery missiles and travel at 50 miles per hour), submarines, nitroglycerin grenades, etc.
- Teen Genius: All three of the Reades start out quite young.
- The Wild West: Quite a few of Frank's adventures take place in the West.