I hate using it as a metaphor, but in the case of storypapers, I just don’t see any way around it. As originally concieved in the 1850s, storypapers were aimed at entertaining the entire family with serials tailored to each taste, newsy notes, recipes, jokes -a weekly package of eight large (14 x 20) pages of densely-packed type, a handful of illustrations, and, remarkably, no advertising save for sister publications and next week’s exciting new story. In 1864, the yearly subscription price for Street & Smith’s New York Weekly was $2.50 (“invariably in advance”), or .0481 cents per copy; by the 1870, the Beadle and Adams New York Saturday Journal, Norman Munro’s New York Family Storypaper and the New York Ledger were asking $3.00 per annum (.058 cents per copy), presumably for superior content, because other storypapers held firm at the $2.50 price almost to the end of the century. Circulation ran as high as 300,000 copies a week, and figuring that each issue was read by multiple people, neighbors as well as the immediate family, the impact of the papers on the public’s reading taste was immense.
Early on the publishers tipped to the idea of overlapping the serials so that all were at different stages of development at any given time. Each issue would have anywhere from four to eight serials running at the same time, spanning an astounding variety of subject matter: stories of the frontier alongside “comic” ethnic stories of wildly dressed negroes or twin Irish midgets, tales of the Irish Rebellion mingling with chivalrous romance, knock-offs and rehashes of Cooper and Verne and Dumas cheek by jowl with the emerging detective genre. As an example, the March 24, 1864 issue of the New York Weekly (A Journal of Useful Knowledge, Romance, Amusement &c.) contains episodes of The One-Armed Trapper, or the Heroine of the Prairie; Red-Handed Hugh, or the Heir of Osmond Hall; The Neglected Warning, or the Trials of a School Teacher; and The Hour of Peril, or the Midnight Attack. The Family Story Paper (A Lively, Interesting and Instructive Weekly) for Sept. 27, 1875, presents Kate Costello, or One True Heart; Madeline’s Revenge, or Woman’s Undying Love; Stars and Stripes, or the Yankee Sailor Boy; Jessie the Cloakmaker, or the Ruined Heart; Viva Ellwood, or Bound by an Oath; A Woman’s Devotion, or With the Tide; and The Mystery of Mystfield House, or Ernesta Bloundell’s Secret. None of these are titles to stir the blood, but I’m sure you recognize them just the same. They’re soaps, the daytime dramas of the mid-nineteenth century. Television, Victorian era style
By the 1880s, when the publications devoted themselves exclusively to a young male audience, the general tone of the titles is ratcheted up several notches. Boys of New York (A Paper for Young Americans) (May 13, 1886) features Satan, or the Mystery of Ten Years; Parnell’s Irish-American Detective, or The Fight for Ireland’s Freedom; The Twenty Doctors, or the Mystery of the Coast; By Command of the King, An Historical Romance; The Boy Volunteers, or The Boss Fire Company of the Town; A Drop of Ink, or Hidden Beneath a Blot, Monte, the French Detective, and His Two New York Boy Pupils; and, though it isn’t a serial but a short story, The Insane Stableman (gotta love that title.)
There’s no evidence, of course, but to my mind, the first story was born out of the shot-gun wedding between record-keeping (Mammoths trek through the pass when the leaves turn this color) and lying (You should have seen the one that got away.) Its sibling, the serial, was born the night a member of the audience said, “That was entertaining. Here, have another bowl of stew.” This event, apart from establishing the absurdly low pay scales that writers struggle with to this day, brought on an orgy of procreation, as the value of longer stories begat creativity, style and marketing. Dull historical accounts of lineages and hardships were transformed into long, epic struggles, filled with tension and drama, tarted up with the common human foibles of sex, romance, revenge and so on.
Learning at just what point to break off the story for the evening became an art form in itself long before it would turn into a cliche. Look at what Scheherezade was able to accomplish, telling one mini-serial after another, for almost three years. Once a story’s length reached a certain unwieldly point, people like Homer began writing them out for posterity. Breaking a story down into chapters was a logical step, and in that sense, all novels,or at least all those with chapter divisions, are serials; you just have greater control over the time period between installments.
Just as the evolving story-tellers were learning what worked and what didn’t, like open-mike night at the Comedy Club, audiences began to note that the same story was enthralling when told by Bob, not so much so when told by Dan. Bob seized on the opportunity, urged the folks to spread the word around that when a good yarn was needed, Bob was the go-to guy. Dan, lacking the fan-base, hired the first agent to keep pace. Things moved more slowly in those days, so it might have taken a couple of months for a local tradesman to step forward and say, “Hey, Bob, I’ll pay your way to all the villages in the valley, if you’ll just drop a mention about the superiority of Og’s Natural Flint Knives and Axes.” And that brings us to one of the truths about serial stories: they are more often than not sales tools rather than an end in themselves. That doesn’t mean they have to be bad, but unfortunately, many, if not most, are.
In England, in the early decades of the 19th century, it was common to publish novels in weekly installments, eight or more pages in a colored paper wrapper. The better novels -The Pickwick Papers is the most famous example- might cost a shilling, or twelvepence; for the average working man, there were the penny part novels, more sensationalistic, often hastily rewritten or re-edited versions of Gothic thrillers like Matthew Lewis’s The Monk or Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Famous criminals like Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard were also popular. Sweeney Todd made his first recorded appearance in a penny part novel, The String of Pearls. At the end of the run, readers could send the completed parts in to the publisher to have them bound in hardcovers, often with a new frontispiece added.
This arrangement allowed the publisher and author to string the story out as long as sales held up, a technique that would later be used in the production of silent movie serials; if sales were less than stellar, the story could be altered mid-stream, wrapped up quickly, or dropped altogether. Today, the parts are more rare than the whole. You can occasionally, find booksellers offering The Pickwick Papers “in parts”, meaning a complete run of unbound copies. They are more than twelvepence though.
The English also had storypapers, similar in most respects to their American counterparts, including the pirating of stories from across the sea.
Serial stories appeared in other, more upscale magazines of the time, though they were less dominant. They were obviously money-makers, especially as the serials could be collected and repurposed into the dime novel libraries that started about the time of the Civil War. The first “official” dime novel, Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens, appearing in BeadleΓÇÖs Dime Novels # 1, dated June 9, 1860 was reprinted from its serial incarnation in the Ladies’ Companion magazine of February, March, and April 1839. The storypapers provided material for weekly libraries like New York Detective Library, Beadle’s Half-Dime Library, Old Sleuth, Old Cap Collier, and dozens of others for the better part of forty years.
Series, that is, stories with the same characters but different plots, gained in popularity toward the end of the centtury, and many famous series characters made their first appearances in serial form in the storypapers. In America, there were Nick Carter (The New York Weekly) and Frank Reade, Jr. (Boys of New York); England supplied Jack Harkaway and Sexton Blake. The Harkaway stories were mercilessly pirated by American publishers; many Sexton Blake stories were rewritten as Nick Carter stories.
The size of the papers had evolved as the years rolled along, shrinking to 11 x 14 inches, but doubling the page count. All in all, everything was working out nicely: the public hunger for inexpensive reading material was sated, the publishers made money, authors found steady work.And then, in 1896, a fellow named Frank Munsey, publisher of a smaller storypaper , called first The Golden Argosy, later shortened to The Argosy, had an idea…..
Anyone wishing to read more about storypapers and dime novels should look into back issues of Dime Novel Round-Up, P.O. Box 226, Dundas, Mn, 55019, or see if your library has editor Randolph Cox’s book, The Dime Novel Companion.