Violet Vane Sata Prescott
Albert Johannsen Project Manager

Dime Novel Printing Processes

A confluence of technological factors in the mid-1800s produced one of the largest mass media booms in history.

Dime novels are popular mass media stories printed in the period between 1860 and 1930, and were preceded by story papers and pamphlet novels, which became popular as early as the 1830s. All of these forms of media came into existence thanks to the timely co-development of a number of printing technologies that made the production and dissemination of text materials easier and cheaper. Previously, fiction in the form of books were luxury items only accessible by wealthier middle class people. The nineteenth century brought fiction into reach of a far larger section of the population with cheaper techniques.

Previous Printing Technology

The clearest predecessors of the dime novel are block books. These were early forms of printed books with illustrations, and, in Europe, date at least as old as the 15th century. Blocks books could be reproduced much more quickly than previous methods, in that the entire page existed as a wood block negative to be inked and printed over and over again. Block books persisted even into the age of the movable type era as they incorporated illustrations very easily. That is to say, the time to produce an all-text block is roughly equivalent to that needed to produce a block with an image. The advantage of block books over the emergent movable type technology lay in the fact that reprints did not require the recomposition of the page in movable type. Recomposition was time-consuming and potentially introduced errors to a stable text. Movable text had the advantage of editability, but block books maintained an advantage of reproducibility for centuries. Typical block books only printed the black outline. Europeans experimented with color block printing, but did not perfect the methodology until much later in the modern era. Instead, color would be added by hand after printing via direct painting or stenciling.

Block book sample
St Christopher Woodcut, Laus Virginis (1423). An example of block printing with carved text and illustration. For many years, this woodcut was the earliest known dated print object in Europe, but older materials have since been uncovered.

Paper, as opposed to vellum and parchment, became more common in Europe after the thirteenth century, arriving via the Islamic world. Made of plant fiber pulped and strained into sheets, it was far less work intensive or time-consuming to manufacture than a single sheet from calf or goatskin. Nevertheless, paper was still expensive, and the fact that paper came in individual sheets meant that all printing efforts required a process of applying and removing paper from the press. Paper could take a wider variety of inks than skins, but printing required development of a thick, sticky oil-based ink, composed of lampblack and varnish, that would not bleed when pressed to paper. These technologies for printing altered in concept very little over the succeeding years, though refinements certainly materialized (particularly in the fabrication of movable type components).

Major Changes in Nineteenth Century

The typical single page platen hand presses gained a few improvements in the early nineteenth century. Some of these improvements including refined furniture (the sections added to movable type to hold discreet sections in place); superior, more permanent inks; and, most notably, the introduction of steam power to perform some tasks (including most famously Hoe & Co.’s steam-powered inking apparatus).

However, the first major technology shift in printing was the introduction of Treadwell’s steam-power platen printing press. These printing presses were still platen-style (that is, they printed on a single flat sheet of paper at a time), but the inclusion of steam power and a different workflow allowed the speed of printing to increase dramatically. The largest of Isaac Adam’s bed and platen presses could reportedly process one thousand sheets per hour. To this day, fine manual printing still uses platen presses similar in construction to these older models.

An engraving of an early example of partially steam-powered printing. From Hoe, page 11.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Louis-Nicolas Robert designed and built a machine that for the first time could generate a continuous sheet of paper that yielded large rolls that could eliminate some of the time involved in removing and placing new sheets of paper into a printing press. Several inventors worked on these paper-production machines. Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier eventually funded the development of a commonly used paper machine (unto the exhaustian of the Fourdrinier fortune), and thus these machines were often called Fourdrinier machines in their period.

These machines would have some variant on a basic process of handling the paper. First, there was a pulp mixing section called a headbox that delivered this pulpy slurry onto a track of mesh to remove the bulk of the water. This conveyor delivered the paper into the rest of the machine, which continued to dry the paper. The last section of the machine rolled the finished paper.


Fourdrinier machine
"Fourdrinier" machine for continuous paper production, from Tomlinson page 365.

Rolled paper very quickly became incorporated into the burgeoning newspaper field (and, relatedly, story paper production). Printing presses that could handle this paper delivery system--both in a reciprocating platen style and, eventually, in a cylinder “perfecting press” system--quickly became the standard in large-run printing of fiction materials. Originally, cylinder presses delivered paper onto a flat plate of type or engraving. Different models offered different methods of paper, ink, and printing delivery, but the nature of the flat plate to be printed stymied the the progress of speed. Cylinder printing, and even a rudimentary form of offset printing, had been experimented with and discarded years before, but by the mid-nineteenth century, all dependent technologies had arrived and become affordable. The last step in speeding production was creating a viable way to produce curved plates that reproduced flat images.


The primary method of dime novel printing throughout the period was via stereotyping. It’s well known that the term “stereotype” today even specifically refers to trends of low quality, stock characters that frequently appeared in dime novels. The same is also true of the term “cliché,” which was originally an onomatopoeia for the sound of stereotype plates clacking in the press.

A stereotype is a flat or curved printing plate made via a reverse imprint from a paper matrix. These matrices were used to reproduce plates in a way that did not damage the original plate and expensive set type. Stereotypes did two primary things for printing: reduced time and cost in reprinting; and allowed for ease of creating curved plates to be used in rotary printing cylinder machines.

Typically, an item to be printed was created in flat form: set type, wood or metal engraving illustrations, or other printed objects locked into a rectangular chase. On top of this, a matrix material of pulp or papier-mâché would be poured and pounded into the grooves of the plate. This would be beaten into the grooves, and pressed to make a perfect mirror and sunken image of the plate. This paper matrix could be recreated flat or curved around a drum. Next, the matrix (or “mat”) would be placed in a drum into which molten metal was poured. The molten metal formed to the paper matrix and created a positive plate in the proper shape for rotary printing.

stereotype mat and casts.jpg
From Hackleman, page 367.

Stereotyping set the stage for the printing of cheap fiction. In fact, one might say that the stereotype was the literal start of the dime novel. Erastus Beadle opened a stereotype foundry in 1850. A year later, Beadle produced a short-lived youth magazine called The Youth's Casket. As is well-known in dime novel history, Irwin P. Beadle & Co. published Malaeska; The Indian Wife of the White Hunter in June 1860 to inaugurate the series Beadle's Dime Novels. Thus the dime novel era grew explicitly out of a stereotype foundry.

Other technologies were concurrent with dime novel publications, but stereotyping remained inexpensive to use and easy to produce for the remainder of the nineteenth and fully into the later part of the twentieth century. At the end of the dime novel era, electrotyping became more common, but never overtook the role of stereotypes for any of the major publishing houses, primarily due to the difference in the cost of the two technologies.

One of the appealing aspects of stereotypes was that the original type and engravings could make multiple mats, and those mats could then be sent to multiple publishers These publishing houses could then have their own stereotype plates manufactured. Furthermore, mats could be made of stereotype plates (though not without degradation of the image), and further the usefulness of the text. Plates could be sold, reused, or melted down to reclaim the metal for new plates. Some collectors have collected plates. Few matrices remain from this era of publishing, as the paper was almost always destroyed or re-pulped after its use.

Use of multiple mats from the same engraving. Both images from The Golden Belt by Colin Barker.


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources