Yellow-back Gold

Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Mrs. Ann E. Stephens, June 1860.

Edward S. Ellis’s first dime novel, Seth Jones: Captives of the Frontier, 1860, is said to have been one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite stories.

Myrtle: The Child of the Prairie by Rose Kennedy December 5,1860

A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity by Mrs. Mary Butler Renville July 1863

No. 1 in Beadle’s Dime Biographical Library,  issued 1860-65

Take these photos with the usual caveat about how colors reproduce on monitors, especially in photos made of old paper where color changes over time. Notice what these covers have in common?

In the beginning, using colored paper beneath black ink was the only “color” innovation available in pulp fiction printing. Wrappers on original copies of Malaeska are sometimes described as “salmon” –perhaps befitting its heroine and female author. But Seth Jones, released only weeks later, appeared in yellow-orange. Wrappers in the orange-gold range soon became the hallmark color of dime novels. Scholars today call these early dime books, “yellow-backs.”

Can it really be any coincidence that in 1863, “The Indian Captives: Leaves from a Journal” was reissued as a booklet with a much more sensational title, A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity, packaged as a yellow-back?

Beyond the color, notice the printed frame defining the text space on each cover? Until I focused narrowly on dime covers produced around the time A Thrilling Narrative appeared, I did not realize that in this early phase of the dime novel craze, covers did not feature woodcut or engraved images which would become hallmarks of the genre by 1864.

If we remove the ornate banner on the Beadle titles, the remaining text looks remarkably like the layout choices someone made for A Thrilling Narrative. Why is the 1863 edition of ATN missing the distinctive masthead?

Beadle and Adams produced multiple series of dime books, which justified the creation of ornate masthead plates. These plates, like the banner on a newspaper, could be used over and over again.

But the Renvilles’ book was published by the more lowly Jobs Office of the Atlas Press of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Newspaper job offices produced small runs of ephemeral printed material, like annual membership directories for the Masonic Lodge or handbills advertising a circus. Politically well-connected editors sometimes landed plum government printing contracts for their paper’s job office. But newspapers were typically a newspaper press’s main business; it would have been costly to produce an ornate plate for a one-time small-run printing job like A Thrilling Narrative.

Notice the parallel between the by-line, “Mrs. Ann E. Stephens” (whose Malaeska, sold an astonishing 300,000 copies over Stephen’s career) and “Mrs. Mary Butler Renville”? Even though we know from the dual-signature, “J.B. and M.A. Renville,” at the end of the newspaper serial that John and Mary claimed joint authorship for their 1862 story, oddly, in 1863, only Mary’s name appeared on the cover.

Zabelle and Gwen and I, as scholars and as women, have always believed the 1863 title was sensationalized to increase sales. The title doesn’t sound like Mary or John and there is very little “thrilling” about their 1862 story. But until I began working on the story of the dime novelization of Josephine Huggins’s story, I hadn’t viewed enough dime covers, in chronological order to realize that the wrapper on the 1863 edition positioned the Renville’s book inside the market for dime books, the best-sellers of that day.


Image credits: Northern Illinois University House of Beadle and Adams Illustrations archive; A Thrilling Narrative, photo by the author of Reserve copy, the Minnesota Historical Society.

This entry was posted in A Thrilling Narrative, Dime Books, Edward Sylvester Ellis, history of printing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Yellow-back Gold

  1. Oecetiduta says:

    To bad the stories of “Indians” being held captive are not shared too.

  2. Pingback: In Which Real Indians Are Captive to Dime Hero Wanna-bes | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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