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Dime Novel

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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:

As time went on, the dime novel's niche was gradually superseded by the Pulp Magazine format.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:

Dime Novel Characters:

Frank Reade

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.