Last week, Brenna gave an overview of the dime novel genre and the best known American publishers. This week, she examines the difficulties associated with cataloging the dime novels.
Let’s face it: dime novels are cool and fun. But though our collection is large, they have been sitting in the stacks, mostly uncataloged, for decades. The reason they languished in the stacks for so long is because their cheap publication and frequent re-printings can make them extremely challenging to catalog, especially the novels in the bound volumes. Many dime novels came in distinctive paper wrappers (orange for Beadle, beige for Munro, blue for Elliott, Thomes & Talbot) that had useful information, such as what series they were in and what number in that series, or perhaps different publication or date information than the title page, which might suggest a later printing or reissue. So, when we have copies of the novels without these paper covers (which frequently happens, as wrappers were both fragile and considered unimportant), we lose a great deal of useful information. This doesn’t by any stretch mean that they’re impossible to properly catalog, just that the job takes a lot of research.
Enter Albert Johannsen, who made cataloging Beadle publications significantly easier. In 1950, he published The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels, a three-volume bibliography of all of the firm’s publications, including background information on the firm, breakdowns of author biographies and pseudonyms, and tracings of individual novels as they were republished in other series. This allows me to put a wonderful amount of detail into the records for Beadle’s novels and other dime publications. Unfortunately, no one has done similarly in-depth work for other dime publishers. Sometimes, simply finding a list of titles in any given series can be a challenge.
As difficult as cataloging dime novels can be, I got spoiled with Beadle novels. Johannsen’s work made my life infinitely easier. All I had to do was flip through his book to find reprint information or a list of authors and pseudonyms. Most challenges that came up were questions of how much information to put in a record, or which variant titles or author names to trace. Even when I got my first novels published by George Munro, I was able to find with reasonable ease a wonderful checklist, with some work to disambiguate author pseudonyms, as a supplement to the magazine Dime Novel Round-up.
The novels of Elliot, Thomes & Talbot, however, were an entirely different story. I began with a novel called The Ducal Coronet: or, The Heir and the Usurper. A Romance of Italy in the Sixteenth Century by Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. There were no wrappers. The title page had no series or numbering information. It didn’t have a publication date or even a copyright date. I didn’t know that their main series was called Ten Cent Novelettes until I started looking through some basic dime novel reference works, which were still a bit skimpy on information. It took finding a reference in Google Books, discovering that AAS not only had the periodical in question, but also had the appropriate year digitized (though I could have easily gone downstairs to find it), to find a list of the items in the Ten Cent Novelettes. The list gave me titles, authors, and series numbers, but still no publication dates. But now I at least knew that The Ducal Coronet was no. 12 of the Ten Cent Novelettes.
Luckily, a few different reference sources, including the wonderful The Dime Novel Companion by J. Randolph Cox, agreed that the series was published monthly and began in November 1862, so I could at least estimate that this novel was published in 1863, which was significantly better than the complete lack of date I had before. (In my searches, I even found a catalog of American imprints from 1861-1866, which included about five or six novels by Cobb. But, naturally, The Ducal Coronet was not among them.) Knowing the start date and the place of any given novel in the series leaves me much better off than I was just with the novel in hand.
But even with missing or inaccurate copyright statements, contradictory imprints, pseudonymous authors, and titles that can change until they are completely unrecognizable, untangling the publishing history of dime novels (as well as reading what bits I can justify for work) is some of the most fun I get to have on the job.