After the 1870’s, the American publishing world experienced an explosion of literature written for young readers. Many of the early books published for juveniles were didactic and moralistic in tone and subject. Others based on historical characters, events, and situations were educational. There was also another kind of publication read by young people that was generally decried as tasteless, unwholesome, and a bad influence on young people: the dime novel. That “demon-in-print,” as it was sometimes known, was undoubtedly the most widely read of all the works of literature of that day and age in the United States. Dime novels were also diverse; some were written specifically for adults, while others were aimed at younger reader. There were also dime novels written specifically for women, and others written for male readers.
The range of subject matter in dime novels was immense, and mystery and detective stories numbers were exceptionally popular. In the world of the dime novel, Nick Carter and the Old Sleuth series of detective stories, including the adventures of Detective Gay and countless other sleuths, inspired readers breathlessly fans to await new installments in the adventures of their favorite mystery solvers. Moreover, no matter what the subject or theme of most dime novels, mysteries were frequently used as secondary plot devices to hold readers’ interest. Such secondary mysteries might pertain to hidden identities; recovery of lost jewelry, money or documents; perpetrators of vandalism; or devices that would serve to whet readers’ attention. Dime novels were stigmatized as poorly written and sensationalist publications, but that stigma was not always deserved. Such respected children’s authors as Louisa May Alcott perfected their craft by writing dime novels.
By the late nineteenth century, most dime novel publishers, and especially Street & Smith, began pooling their titles into “Libraries” designed for boys and girls and printing those titles into hardback books. At a time when hardbound children’s books sold for more than a dollar, the seventy-five cents charged for a Library volume was a bargain. In most instances, however, these hardbound Library volumes were simply previously published dime novels in new bindings redesigned for children. Some of the authors represented in the Libraries went on to write juvenile series books. As a consequence, the unsavory reputation of dime novels tended to taint the new juvenile series.