Romancing History

Tag: penny dreadfuls

What do April 1, a sundial and Benjamin Franklin all have in common?

What do April 1, a sundial and Benjamin Franklin all have in common?

Answer: The Penny

April first is not just April Fools day, its also National One Cent Day and the penny can trace its lineage to one of America’s favorite founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin designed the first United States one cent coin minted in 1787.

Fugio One Cent Coin

Fugio One Cent Coin

Franklin’s coin was much larger than today’s penny, nearly the size of a half-dollar.  At that time, people expected coins to contain close to their face value in metal. The first official one cent coin has become known as the Fugio Cent to coin collector’s in reference to the Latin phrase “Fugio” (Latin: I flee/fly) engraved on the reverse side of the coin along with the images of a sun shining down on a sun dial. Beneath the sundial appeared the phrase, “Mind Your Business.” The image and the words form a rebus meaning that “time flies, do your work.”

The reverse side of the coin featured a chain of 13 links, each representing one of the original thirteen colonies. Inside the circle chain was engraved the motto “We Are One”. Gold and silver coins transitioned to the motto “E pluribus unum” (Latin: Out of Many, One) from the Great Seal of the United States.

Flying Eagle Penny

Flying Eagle Penny

By the 1850s, the United States Treasury was looking to reduce the size and composition of the one-cent coin to make it easier to handle and more economical to mint. In 1857 the United States Government introduced the Flying Eagle cent. This was the first one cent coin minted in the exact diameter of the modern penny you have in your pocket. Although somewhat thicker and heavier, the Flying Eagle was also the first penny composed of copper and nickel.

Indian Head Penny

Indian Head Penny

The design changed again in 1859 portraying the Goddess of Liberty wearing an Indian headdress. The Indian head penny remained in circulation until 1909 when it was replaced by the image of President Lincoln issued for the 100th anniversary of the assassinated president’s birth and still graces the face of the one cent coin. Today’s penny is made of copper and zinc and the Union Shield is engraved on the reverse side replacing the Lincoln Memorial which had been there since 1959.

Although pennies may be the smallest denomination of United States currency, they’ve had a huge impact on American expressions concerning both saving and spending money. Some of the oldest sayings use the word “penny” as a way of identifying a minimal amount, low-cost  or limited value.

saving penniesThe proverb “a penny spar’d is twice got” encourages frugality. By declining to spend a penny and to save one’s money instead, you are a penny up rather than a penny down, hence ‘twice got’. “A penny saved is a penny earned” is another thrifty axiom often falsely attributed to Benjamin Franklin. First published in Pall Mall magazine in 1899, the maxim implies that even small bits of money are important though many people don’t think a penny is really worth saving.

If you’re experiencing a bad turn of events, then you might find yourself “without two pennies to rub together.” This expression is often muttered by those who tend to spend their money as soon as they get it. Thus, they never seem to have any cash in their pocket.


Here are some other common English phrases using the word penny:

Penny Pincher: a bargain hunter or someone who is always trying to get a good deal

Pretty Penny: an expression used to describe an expensive or extravagant item

Penny wise and pound foolish: someone who watches small expenditures while making unwise investments or squanders money on frivolous expensive purchases

In for a penny, in for a pound: when a good opportunity finally comes your way  you’re willing to risk whatever you have in the venture

Penny Dreadfuls: serial stories printed on cheap pulp paper selling for one cent per issue

Penny ante poker: a poker game between players not willing to risk much cash

Although I can’t afford to give each of you “a penny for your thoughts,” I hope you have a little more respect for the smallest coin in your wallet.

Penny Dreadful’s Legacy

“To her and none other. Swear to give the girl to me to do with as I please, and I will agree that for every person now in yonder town, a death notch shall be made.”

“Red Hatchet agrees. When he can count the death notches of all his sworn enemies, and is free to go back to his once pretty village, he will deliver Siska to the Devil Dwarf to do with as he pleases.”

“Then call the girl. We will tap a vein in her arm, and seal this compact with a draught of her blood!” the avenger said.

~~Excerpt from Deadwood Dick’s Doom (or Calamity Jane’s Last Adventure)

Sweeney Todd, 1842

Sweeney Todd, 1842

If you love to read like I do, you may be surprised to learn that stories like Deadwood Dick’s Doom (above) paved the way for your favorite author today. These stories, originally known as Penny Dreadfuls, were the first successful mass market paperbacks. First popularized in Victorian Britain, Penny Dreadfuls, sometimes referred to as Penny Bloods, were lurid serial fiction stories published in weekly eight or sixteen page installments, with each part costing one penny. The term quickly became applied to any publication featuring sensational fiction such as story papers and booklet libraries.

Also known in Britain as Shilling Shockers, these stories could best be described in one word, melodramatic. Filled with what today’s editor’s would gleefully strike through as purple prose, these tintillating stories drew readers by romanticizing danger and hardship with larger-than-life heroes defeating villains and rescuing damsels in distress. Rambling plot lines emphasized heinous acts of poisoning, strangling, burglary and narrow escapes from sexual assault that by today’s standards would be considered racist and misogynistic.

Their authors, who might keep ten of these stories spinning simultaneously, were paid at the rate of a penny a line, which had a direct effect on the text. Skilled practitioners quickly learned that short staccato-like sentences not only were the most profitable but increased the dramatic effect as well.

Penny Dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed primarily at the working class who saw a sharp rise in literacy rates with new laws requiring mandatory education for all of Britain’s children through age nine. In addition, the proliferation of the railroad made the distribution of Penny Dreadfuls affordable to the masses at a time when traditional full-length novels by authors like Charles Dickens sold for a dollar each.

MalaeskaThe fad took hold on this side of the Atlantic as well when brothers Erastus and Irwin Beadle published Ann Stephens’ “Maleska the Indian Wife of the White Hunter” in 1860. Promoting the work as “a dollar book for a dime,” it was an instant success selling an estimated 300,000 copies in its first year. A feat any author today would would eagerly aspire to repeat.

Beadle’s early publications were printed in orange wrapper papers with no illustrations on the cover. Eventually cover art appeared enticing the curiosity of consumers with illustrations depicting scenes of mayhem and bloodshed.

Drawing on the Beadle’s success, other publishers quickly followed suit and it seemed the American reading public couldn’t get enough of their serialized fiction. Subjects in the early days were pioneer and revolutionary war stories but other adventure genres, such as pirate tales and trapper adventures, also appeared frequently. After the civil war, the focus of the novels turned to the wild west and the detective genres and remained popular through the 1950’s. In the twentieth century the genre became known as pulp fiction after the cheap paper they were printed on.

Early cover art for Beadle's Dime Novels

Early cover art for Beadle’s Dime Novels

Early full cover art for dime novels

Early full cover art for dime novels

1933 cover, still selling for ten cents

1933 cover, still selling for ten cents

Dime Westerns, as they became known in America, were often based on real people like Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, and Calamity Jane. Although purely fiction, these stories helped create a new national identity of patriotism and adventure. In addition, they helped level the playing field between the social classes as people began to judge the ideal man by his actions rather than his wallet.

Just like violent video games and movies today, dime novels were blamed for an upsurge in violence in American society. PennyDreadfulcrime-briefs1The New York Tribune published this article in June, 1884, blaming societal ills on the popularity of “cheap” literature, particularly dime novels. People complained that the deviant characters in novels influenced real people, particularly young men, to behave aggressively. “The work of the dime novel is being performed with even more than usual success. The other day three boys robbed their parents and started off for the boundless West. More recently a lad in a Philadelphia public school drew a revolver on his teacher, and examination showed that seven other boys present were armed with revolvers and bowie-knives […] The class of literature which is mainly responsible for all this folly is distributed all over the country in immense quantities, and it is distinctly evil in its teachings and tendencies.”

While penny dreadfuls and dime novels focused on fantastic, escapist fiction for the general masses, there is no denying they encouraged the working class to read and influenced generations of authors and publishers. British bookseller, C.A. Stonehill, noted in 1935 that “It is highly probably that in its day more people read Thomas Prest’s “First False Step” or “The Maniac Father” than had ever heard of a book published in the same decade, entitled Jane Eyre.”

Although I may prefer to read of Jane’s trouble with the enigmatic Mr. Rochester over “Keetsea, Queen of the Plains,” or “Crack Skull Bob,” I think it would be fun to write a character who is secretly hooked on the scintillating stories with the melodrama pouring over into her own life as she suspects something heinous has occurred to a missing neighbor. In her novella, “The Husband Maneuver,” With This Ring?: A Novella Collection of Proposals Gone Awry, Karen Witemeyer (one of my favorites) created a hero whose adventures as a bounty hunter were immortalized as Dead-Eye Dan in a series of dime westerns. Talk about a fun read!

How would you incorporate a Penny Dreadful into a novel’s plot line?

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