Mysteries in the Stacks; or, The Allan P. Kirby Jr. Collection

Left: Protagonist Nick Carter and friends use rifles to ambush the bad guys, below, from a rooftop in Tokyo, Japan. Right: Protagonist Nick Carter and others watch a woman shoot a man outside a burning building.
Left: Carter, Nick, pseud. New Nick Carter Weekly 602. Talika, the Geisha Girl; or, Nick Carter’s Japanese Rival. New York: Street & Smith, July 11, 1908. Right: Doughty, Francis Worcester. Secret Service: Old and Young King Brady, Detectives 208. A Queen of Her Kind; or, A Beautiful Woman’s Nerve. New York: Street & Smith, January 16, 1904.

Dime novels were hastily written, formulaic and sensational stories marketed to teenage boys. Examples of the genre held in Burns Library are the related “nickel weeklies.” Popular subjects include detectives, pirates, inventors, and heroes of American history. Publishers employed an array of pseudonymous authors and anonymous illustrators to churn out tale after tale using familiar, recurring characters and situations. Issues were published weekly in New York City from 1887 to 1915 before being distributed throughout the country. Each included about 30 pages of text in double columns, with no illustrations beyond their covers —  where the casual racism, sexism, and violence that permeates the stories is on clear display. 

The protagonists, in a fortified wagon pulled by robotic deer, intervene in a fight between outlaws and miners in rugged terrain.
Left: Senarens, Luis. Pluck and Luck: Complete Stories of Adventure 166. Jack Wright the Boy Inventor, Exploring Central Asia in his Magnetic Hurricane. New York: Frank Tousey, August 7, 1901. Right: Senarens, Luis. Pluck and Luck: Complete Stories of Adventure 222. Jack Wright and his Electric Deers; or, Fighting the Bandits of the Black Hills. New York: Frank Tousey, September 3, 1902.

The advent of moving pictures for the same price hastened the dime novel’s decline in popularity. Dime novels or nickel weeklies stopped publication, but pulp magazines and paperback novels soon followed in their melodramatic footsteps. 

Young collectors purchased, traded, and kept issues of their favorite series. As those youngsters grew up, the urge to collect was bolstered by nostalgia. One such collector was Allan P. Kirby, Jr., who assembled a collection of Nick Carter Mysteries and Early Dime Novels, which could no longer be stored in Pennsylvania. Popular fiction is a collecting area at Burns, and the role of dime novels in the mystery genre made the collection a good fit.

Left: On the deck of a ship, the protagonist, Thad, shoots Captain Kidd. Right: During the chaos of a naval battle, fictional hero “Paul Jones” stands above the crowded deck of a ship on a rope ladder, waving an American flag.
Left: The Red Raven Library: Stirring Tales of Old Buccaneer Days 1. Captain Kidd’s Sea Swoop; or, Carried Off by Pirates. New York: The Winner Library Co., 1905. Right: Paul Jones Weekly: Stories of the American Revolution 3. Paul Jones’ Pledge; or, The Tiger of the Atlantic. New York: The Winner Library Co., October 14, 1905.

Dime novels are a lens to view American popular culture at the turn of the 20th century. Original issues are now incredibly fragile, since they were printed on cheap, acidic paper. Many images are available in digital collections and exhibits. Issues from the Allan P. Kirby Jr. collection have not been digitized, but can be requested from the library catalog using the Burns Library online request management system. These materials are stored offsite, so we require at least 3 business days notice before your appointment. 

The Allan P. Kirby, Jr. collection includes issues from the series Pluck & Luck: Complete Stories of Adventure, published by Frank Tousey (1891-1904); Nick Carter Weekly; New Nick Carter Weekly, published by Street & Smith (1897-1912); Secret Service, Old and Young King Brady, Detectives, published by Frank Tousey (1899-1912); The Liberty Boys of ‘76: A Weekly Magazine Containing Stories of the American Revolution, published by Frank Tousey (1901-1925); Red Raven Library: Stirring Tales of Old Buccaneer Days, published by Winner Co. (Street & Smith) (1905); and Paul Jones Weekly: Stories of the American Revolution, published by Winner Co. (Street & Smith) (1905-1906).

Right: The two protagonists fight with nine anarchist assassins in a room.
Left: Doughty, Francis Worcester. Secret Service: Old and Young King Brady, Detectives 453. The Bradys and the Chinese Juggler; or, the Opium Fiend’s Revenge. New York: Frank Tousey, September 27, 1907. Right: Secret Service: Old and Young King Brady, Detectives 89. The Bradys’ Battle for Life; or, The Keen Detectives’ Greatest Peril. New York: Frank Tousey, October 5, 1900.

—Shelley Barber, Reference & Archives Specialist, John J. Burns Library

Works consulted:

Cox, J. Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion: a Source Book. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Stanford University. Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls.

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