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Dime Novels and Moralism

American Novels, American Moralism: Cheap Literature and the Social Purity Movement

By Patricia Torvalds (2019)



In America, cheap books were produced and sold beginning in the early 1860s, as public literacy rose sharply amongst women and the working class and the cost of producing books dropped. The books were intended for an audience of working class people who had recently joined the industrialized workforce within rapidly-growing American cities, where booksellers could flourish on the newly literate working class. Romances were marketed to young, independent women, but their heroines were concerned with propriety and virginity in order to push an agenda of purity and piety in the Progressive Era. Within the books’ storylines, virtue-signalling storylines punished overly adventurous or free-spirited women with death and rewarded morally prudent ones with marriage. In particular, the marketing copy of the novels of Bertha M. Clay, romances published by Street and Smith Corporation in New York, reflected increasingly puritanical or even white nationalistic viewpoints during this period of major American urbanization.


The Progressive Era began in the early 1880s and lasted until the late 1920s (“The Progressive Era”). This shift, which occured at the turn of the 20th century, arose in a time of political unrest and a growing sense of frustration amongst the American working class. As disenfranchised workers called for an end to the brutality of capitalism in the late 1800s, the idea of reforming and improving American democracy became a cornerstone of the Progressive political platform (Hawksworth). By 1908 the lives of the working class greatly improved through a federal minimum wage, legislation forbidding government corruption and nepotism, and laws against child labor (Leonard 212). However, a more reformist Progressive view focused on the Prohibitionist movement against alcohol, as well as criminalizing prostitution and even eugenics-based beliefs which sorted humans into the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor (Leonard 207). The Progressive Era allowed for great growth within the working class and public safety, and simultaneously renewed a focus on puritanical morality. In this vein, “Reform-minded economists of the Progressive Era defended exclusionary labor and immigration legislation on grounds that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers, whom they labeled “parasites,” “the unemployable,” “low-wage races” and the “industrial residuum.” Removing the unfit, went the argument, would uplift superior, deserving workers” (Leonard 207-208). This sentiment, commonly held by wealthy elites who feared a changing social landscape, translated into popular media, including widely-read cheap literature called dime novels.

Dime novels published around this time focused on sensationalist literature, stories that appealed by way of adventure, romance, and murder. Jeremy Agnew, in The Age of Pulps and Dimes, writes, “The purpose of this type of literature was to make money for the publisher, so the contents were fashioned for the lowest tastes of the working-class masses” (3). This translated into stories focused on national fears of the time, especially that of rising crime rates in rapidly growing cities. With regards to women, these fears included the concept of white slavery, which was another part of the Progressive Era’s movement towards social purity. “The white slavery hysteria appears to have originated with an article in McClure’s magazine in 1907. In it, muckraking journalist George Kibbe Turner claimed that women were being kidnapped by an organization of evil immigrants,” (Agnew, 14) which served the dual purpose of further alienating white people, non-immigrants, and US citizens, from people of color, the poor, and immigrants; and ingraining a sense of white female victimhood in the context of the city. By stratifying a moral separation between social classes, dominant narratives of white women’s victimhood were able to maintain a racial hierarchy within rapidly expanding cities. With this new conception of “white slavery,” prostitution was criminalized across America. Prior to 1909, sex work was legal throughout the United States. Between the years of 1909 and 1914, every state except for Nevada criminalized sex work due to the white slavery movement (McNeill, “Treating Sex Work as Work”). The criminalization of sex work was part of the same so-called “social purity” movement that subsequently led to the creation of the Mann Act (also called the White-Slave Traffic Act) in 1910, which prevented the transport of women across state lines and was at times used to prosecute consensual behavior that fell outside of social norms (“Congress Passes Mann Act”). As the ideas of the Progressive Era took hold, authors and publishers encouraged the increased social pressure to act in a proprietary way by stoking the fears and imaginations of the working class. Where men’s dime novels focused on outward expansion, in the form of Westerns and adventure novels which transported characters to far off lands which they would then colonize or conquer (Williams), women’s novels focused on protecting female virginity and virtue while dealing with city life.

Street & Smith, New York publishers of dime novels across a wide variety of genres, took this approach further. They were founded as a magazine publisher in 1855, and became a publisher of cheap fiction soon thereafter (“The Press: New Bottles”).While their literature across genres was comprised of sensationalist stories with themes of murder, untimely deaths, and dramatic romances, by the beginning of the 1900s, the books were specifically sold as “clean” and “wholesome” with “no jazz” and “no sex.” (Clay, Wife in Name Only), (Rowlands, Leila Vane’s Burden). Street & Smith represented a more puritanical response to the increasingly lurid dime novels of the day (Sullivan, 2). While Street & Smith still produced thousands of titles focusing on everything from adventure stories for boys to romance novels for working-class women, their focus on propriety reflected the Progressive Era’s concern over working class readership: the upper classes were deeply concerned that if blue collar workers read about crime, they would be compelled to commit it, leading to a genre of social control literature (Sullivan, 7) which included storylines that punished rebellious women (Clay, Wife in Name Only). Other dime novels of the time were more openly sexual, and seen as cheap or trashy (Carr). Street & Smith set themselves apart somewhat by way of their focus on “clean and wholesome” literature which extended beyond their lines for young women, and included books for boys (Egerton). In this way, Street & Smith created dime novels to match the growing social unease amongst young people of the time.

Within the Street & Smith lines, one romance author stands out: Bertha M. Clay. The books of Bertha Clay had their own, entirely separate line, called from 1900 the Bertha Clay Library and from 1917 the New Bertha Clay Library. The Bertha Clay Library originally consisted of over 500 titles; later, the New Bertha Clay Library contained over 400 titles in this name (Cox, 26) under the authorship of up to twelve different authors (Carr). Bertha Clay books were originally written by the British author Charlotte Brame, who wrote under contract for Street & Smith before her death in 1884. Her books were so popular that the name became a “house name” and remained in usage for the next 50 years. Because of this line, which had the longest running popularity of any women’s dime novels with the series running from 1900 to the early 1930s (Cox, 26), Street & Smith was able to rely heavily on name and brand recognition in order to build a successful line of moralistic, yet escapist romance literature: the woman who originally wrote as Bertha Clay was replaced by as many as 12 other authors producing similar books under this name (Carr). These sensationalist love stories were immensely popular, and were one of the preferred forms of entertainment of a newly literate working class. Street & Smith publishers produced the Bertha Clay line through the 1930s, retaining a close hold on moral values of the turn of the 20th century through the success of their women’s dime fiction.

Bertha Clay, Writings

Bertha Clay novels encouraged the white moralistic values of Progressive era leaders with targeted marketing copy on the back cover and appealing images of upper class, leisurely women on the front. Bertha M. Clay’s novels were marketed like many other romance lines Street & Smith produced, which included the New Eagle Series and Love Story Library, among others (Carr). The front cover often featured an illustration of a single young woman in delicate evening attire, often seated at a table or on a couch, occasionally surrounded by small props: maybe a book, or a tea set. The woman depicted was unfailingly white, pretty, and wearing the fashions of the time. The portraits were also in color, an original choice from Street & Smith which appealed them to younger audiences (LeBlanc, 17).The title and name of the author in the New Bertha Clay Library were often the same size, making it clear that booksellers relied on name recognition of specific libraries or authors. The backs of romance dime novels, meanwhile, frequently focused on Street & Smith’s positive reputation. The back covers were most frequently several paragraphs of simple promotional text, including lines such as, “Nothing except clean, wholesome literature finds its way into our lines” (Clay, Wife in Name Only), explicitly signifying a certain standard of morality within the book. “No jazz – no sex – just big, clean, interesting books,” (Collins, The Fortunes of Love), reads a back cover from the New Eagle Series, with identical copy on the back cover of another book from the Love Story Library (Rowlands, Leila Vane’s Burden). The marketing copy on the back cover advertised the notion that sellers of Street & Smith dime novels had standards and morals, by directly saying that booksellers who carried Street & Smith books were “careful and wise” and that they would “select the other articles [the bookseller] has for sale with the same degree of intelligence” (Clay, Wife in Name Only), elevating these cheaply produced dime novels to the same level as more richly produced and edited hardback literature which would be sold alongside it.

Furthermore, the coded “no jazz” copy alluded to the heightened race relations plaguing a nation in the midst of the Jim Crow era of mandated racial segregation. Common entertainment in the form of minstrel shows were openly demeaning to Black American culture; elements of Black culture like jazz music were depicted as culturally negative. At the same time as dime novels from Smith & Street focused on publishing books which encouraged women to maintain their sexual virtue, they also preached separatist ideals which maintained the idea of Black culture as lesser than white American culture. Minstrel shows remained immensely popular from 1835 through the 20th century (Powell). The minstrel character Jim Crow was especially popular and heavily emulated: a reflection on the white American view of American Blackness as something to be mocked and consumed, and otherwise kept to the margins of polite society (Powell). This translated into Smith & Street’s coded “no jazz” copy. By elevating, and separating, Street & Smith dime novels from other forms of popular media in this fashion, and explicitly presenting the material inside as “appropriate” and up to a higher standard of morality, Street & Smith’s Bertha Clay novels both assuaged readers’ fears of appearing improper while also acknowledging the popular, sexualized culture of dime novels and American insecurities regarding sexuality and even race.

The internal book marketing copy also focused on these same themes of Progressive Puritanism. The focus on “no sex” carried over into front and back matter of the books as well, which were occasionally formatted in paragraph style identical to the back cover of the books. One Bertha Clay book reads, “There is a great deal of difference between love stories and sex stories. There is something about love which commands respect and reverence. There is nothing about a sex story which commands either” (A Daughter of Eve). By setting aside all allusions to a hierarchy between moral and immoral literature, Bertha Clay Library books allowed for a direct tie between their readership and the popular messages of the Progressive Era. These messages pervaded nearly every aspect of the Bertha Clay marketing copy. The front matter introduced Clay’s other titles, of which there were hundreds, read, “The Author Needs No Introduction” and “Countless millions of women have enjoyed the works of this author” (Clay, A Daughter of Eve), but also noted that “These stories teem with action, and what is more desirable, they are clean from start to finish. They are love stories, but are of a type that is wholesome and totally different from the cheap, sordid fiction that is being published by unscrupulous publishers.” (Clay, A Daughter of Eve). This same copy is reproduced almost exactly in Clay’s Wife in Name Only, published 24 years prior. While this copy would be typically viewed only after the book had been purchased, or at least after the customer had read the back cover, the continued insistence on wholesome, clean literature speaks to Street & Smith’s Bertha Clay Library’s focus on cementing itself as a publisher of literature morally above other dime novels, which were seen as trashy (Carr) and encouraging popular concerns of the time.

The storylines in Bertha Clay novels promised clean, wholesome literature, but were sensationalized works nonetheless. Heroines lost children or even died as a direct result of their romantic decisions, as in A Daughter of Eve, wherein the heroine Nellie dies as a result of attempting to follow her beloved to Canada. She thinks, in her dying moments, “What does it matter now whether her husband acknowledges or repudiates her? … In her girlish folly and infatuation she has made a dire shipwreck of her life; but she has paid the penalty, and Heaven, she feels, is very merciful, and somewhere beyond all this there is another world where sorrow and parting are no more” (154). Her husband, the hero, succumbs into a “miserable wreck” (221) as a result of her death. The story arc is a clear warning for women to not stray too far from home. Similarly, in Clay’s A Bitter Bondage, the supporting character Lady Margaret leaves America to flee to Athens (referred to by other characters as “a most outlandish place” (263)) and dies there of cholera (264), while the hero and heroine get married and the book ends happily for the main characters, who unlike Lady Margaret did not stray from their own places in society. This form of strict, blatant moralism which equated sexual pursuit of men, or in fact any adventurous inklings, directly with death, reestablishes Clay’s continued encouragement of puritanical lifestyles for working-class young women.


By way of simple marketing copy, as well as sensationalist storylines that maintained a strong sense of morality and doled out punishment to (particularly, female) characters who transgressed social or moral conventions, romance dime novels were able to impart bourgeois morality on working-class women. The dime novels relied on familiar formatting and marketing copy, as well as recognizable libraries and series fiction, in order to both build a brand and persistently push for a moralistic approach to reading fiction. Reading novels, in particular in regards to young women, seen as a destructive or morally unsound hobby, but the cheap entertainment of novels meant they were consistently consumed by working-class young women (Carr). By creating a line of cheap romance which soothed upper-class fears about working-class unrest in a Progressive time which prioritized marginalized workers, while also playing to the sensationalist tastes of young, working-class women, Bertha Clay books proved their staying power in a highly tumultuous American political landscape.




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