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