Children's Literature in Special Collections
Chapbooks, Street Cries, and Dime Novels
The definition of a chapbook is loose, but in general, a chapbook is a small book or pamphlet often sold by travelling salesmen in the 17th-19th century. These inexpensive books, usually 8-24 pages, contained materials such as poems, stories, moral tales, illustrations, nursery rhymes and ballads that were very appealing to children. Chapbooks varied greatly in quality, some were produced with beautiful woodcuts, well edited tales, and an emphasis on good grammar. Lesser quality books displayed grammatical errors, poor printing, and generic illustrations that were used repeatedly, regardless of the chapbook's content. Despite the questionable quality of some chapbooks, they played an important part in literacy as they were the primary access to literature for the "common" folk.
"Street Cries" are verses, chants, and jingles that peddlers and merchants would "cry out" in the streets of town to advertise their goods. Publishers in the 17th-19th century used these popular chants along with images of vendors as material for their books. Naturally, street cries and other occupation books were enjoyed by children as they contained illustrations and catchy rhymes.
In the mid 19th century, a new type of juvenile literature, Dime novels, emerged. The term "dime novel" was originally a brand name (Beadle's Dime Novels) but after the popularity of the novels exploded, it became a general term for this type of pulp literature. These novels were specifically marketed to younger audiences, primarily males from the ages of 8-16. Dime novel stories tended to be sensational and melodramatic and contained simpler language so children could read and interpret the stories easily without having to consult an adult.
While the stories were very popular with the youth, some adults were not as fond of the literature, complaining about the use of slang, unrealistic scenarios, and violence. Dime novels lost popularity by the early 20th century with the emergence of newspaper comics and other types of low cost fiction.