Dime Novels and the Pulps
© Kevin Freeman
Where would a discussion on pin-ups be without mention of dime novels, pulp magazines and paperback originals? These disposable diversions were sold by the millions and spawned as many fevered dreams of heros, villain and those lithe damsels in their torn red dresses. Granted, there were whole genres, like sports, aviation and westerns, that features no women at all. I'll leave those chronicles to someone else.
Dime Novels were small, inexpensive books produced following the success of Beadle's and Adams' 'Malaeska' in 1860. The story was actually a series compilation from a magazine twenty years earlier. Popularized by Horatio Alger and others, dime libraries paved the way for serialized recurring characters. They were aimed primarily at a younger readership and often featured plots rooted in American history. In contrast to hardbound 'high literature', Dime Novels were purchased at newsstands and designed to be consumed and discarded. The railroad in particular aided the distribution of these books, while improvements in printing and increased literacy combined to make them the most popular mass entertainment of the late 1800s.
In Dime Novels, the women were rarely depicted in real danger. These periodicals were aimed primarily at boys, so girls usually looked on as their protectors played rugby, fought Indians or battled exotic witch doctors. Adhering to the Victorian moral code, women and families were targeted with their own Story Papers and novels with strong messages about social responsibilities. Authors learned to express their melodramas with fast paced action and a minimum of excess verbiage. With the advent of the typewriter in the 1870s, successful authors were churning out monthly 70,000 word fiction and making a good living at a penny per word.
One of the first genres to achieve success was the western with protagonists like Wild Bill Hickock, Deadwood Dick and Commander Cody. As the nation became more urbanized, cities increasingly became the new metaphor for the Wild West and the detective became the central hero. The Bradys, Old King and his son Harry, sensationalized the perils of the new urban landscape with menacing stereotypical "Yellow Demon" Chinese tongs, opium warlords and all manner of nefarious gangs. Advances in technology invariably made their way into stories, which included motorcycles, automobiles and aeroplanes as measure of distancing themselves from their horsebacked predecessors.
Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes made his debut in 1887, bringing scientific and deductive sleuthing. By that time, Old Sleuth, Old Cap Collier and Nick Carter had already been solving crimes and saving chaste women for years in Dime Novels. Munsey's weekly Golden Argosy morphed to the larger pulp format in 1894 and changed publishing forever. Still, it wasn't until the period between the World Wars that pulps became the sensation of words and images that left a lasting legacy to pin-up art. That was the time of prohibition, full of gangsters, short skirts, pre-Hays Code cinema and looser morality. Add to the mix a population suffering through the Great Depression and eager for inexpensive escapist entertainment and you'll see how the pulps (and Tijuana Bibles) filled every possible voyeuristic niche to sell literally millions of issues a month.
Before pulps, slick magazines (so-named for their glossy stock and superior paper quality) were staid publications aimed for family consumption. National brands advertised in upscale magazines and famous artists like Rolf Armstrong and George Petty were international celebrities. The pulps offset their printing costs by running ads for booklets of beautiful models 'ready to draw' and thinly veiled exotic sex manuals. By changing to newsstand distribution, pulps offered the working class a dazzling selection and the only way to initially differentiate one publication from other similar titles was the cover. Improvements in color printing made it easier to reproduce eye-catching art and the pulps succeeded in that respect. It didn't take a publishing genius to realize that sexy women would appeal to a male readership. In an attempt to buck the trend, Amazing Stories tried an issue with a symbolic cover instead of their usual space opera theme and saw sales plummet 22% for that month.
Following World War I, titles appeared depicting the 'saucy' French lifestyle. There were genres devoted to New York nightlife and Hollywood movie starlets. The movies, in particular, provided the opportunity to show as much skin as possible and many issues, illustrated by pin-up artists such as Quintana and Bolles, have become quite collectable. Some titles used blatant nudity and were relegated to 'under the counter' status. Since 'Spicy' stories were quite popular with a male readership, no doubt due to the brilliant art of H.J. Ward, the 'Spicy' theme was soon incorporated into other genres of pulp fiction.
The detective field was devoured by the public and clean cut All American boys like Frank Merriwell were replaced by hardboiled detectives and G Men. The terse prose pioneered by Allan Pinkerton in the 1870s had developed into a protagonist street wise, prone to violence and usually surrounded by women of equally dubious virtue. The style, first developed in the pulp Black Mask, influenced Film Noire Hollywood and launched the paperback careers of authors such as Micky Spillane, Dashiell Hammett and others. The covers usually depicted a square jawed dick, busting down a door, roscoe blazing, to save a hot dame from some knuckle dragging miscreant. Another variant has our fearless hero restrained, watching helplessly as evil minions took liberties with the fair sex. Norman Saunders and Walter M. Baumhofer did yeoman's work illustrating the covers of this field.
Another format that the pulps pioneered was science fiction. No respectable book publisher would take a chance on futuristic drama, despite the successful earlier romantic fantasies of Jules Vernes and H.G. Welles. The pulps, with their voracious need to fill pages gave such esteemed visionaries as Issac Azimov, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury their start. Amazing Stories is credited with being the first 'scientfiction' publisher. Early issues featured such icons as Buck Rogers and Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter of Mars and spawned a host of imitators..
When dealing with the unknowns of futuristic science, artists such as Earle Bergey (Originator of the so-called 'Brass Bra') took liberties to display their female subjects as close to naked as possible. While there was never a lack of monsters to threaten these space lovelies, some illustrators, like Virgil Finley, had a softer and more languid approach to tasteful nudity. It is interesting to note how many men required cumbersome space suits, while space-age women braved the final frontier in the skimpiest of attire!
Women in the pulps were no longer passive spectators. Now they were involved in the action, almost always being endangered by an assortment of cliché antagonists. Fantasy titles, pioneered by the redoubtable Weird Tales which featured artwork by Virgil Finlay and Margaret Brundage were popular. Grabbing attention also were gothic horror 'shudder pulps' in the Grand Guignol style. The ever present mad scientist and evil cult villains popularized by Dime Mystery Magazine put young beauties into more and more graphic situations. The cover work by such artists as Raphael DeSoto and Rudolph Belarski regularly depicted defenseless women threatened by skeletons, savages and weird foreigners, thrown into pits and whipped by fiends. By the 1950s, the pulps had passed their graphic torch to the comics. Some publishers, such as EC, took the 'shudder' format to such extremes that public outcry and the self-imposed 'Comic Code of Authority' effectively shut down such horrific displays.
One lasting legacy of the pulps was the genesis of the hero crime fighter. Such classic characters as Tarzan, Zorro and The Shadow had their debuts in the hey day of the pulps. Interestingly, The Shadow was an accidental creation. While sponsoring a radio program of the same name, Smith & Street Publishers were beseeched to produce a magazine to continue the exploits of the serial. They did and in the process set the stage for many of the motifs that would be carried on by comic book superheros shortly after.
Consider Superman, who debuted in 1938. He is known as the 'Man of Steel', a visitor from another planet with a secret identity and Fortress of Solitude. Batman is a millionaire bachelor with amazing strength, cunning and technical expertise, called to action by the BatSignal. Compare them to pulp heroes Doc Savage, the 'Man of Bronze' with incredible strength and an Arctic fortress, the Phantom Detective, signaled by authorities by a red light in the night sky and The Black Bat, who was striking fear in the heart of criminals before the Dark Knight inhabited Gotham!
Sadly, the pulps were doomed by a variety of forces. Paper shortages during World War II are blamed for some titles disappearing. Others survived by converting to magazine or digest formats. As economic hard times hit, some publishers reprinted old stories, which prompted disillusionment in readers and an investigation by the FTC. In addition to television, comics siphoned off the younger consumers and paperbacks the older audience. I have created pages for both formats to track the trajectory of this lamentably lost American art. I think you'll agree that some of the best pulp illustrators deserve the recognition and acclaim reserved for those who drew for more respectable venues.