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A Short History of the American Pulps 

The pulps sprang out of the cheap fiction magazines of the 19th century. In Europe, those were the colporteur magazines, those sold by wandering peddlers. In England, they were the penny dreadfuls, ha’penny dreadfuls, and story papers. And in the United States, they were novelettes (in the 1840s and 1850s) and dime novels (from the 1860s onwards). These weren’t the only American fiction magazines, of course. By the 1890s, there were a number of high-quality fiction magazines being published in America, and the market offered magazines for people of every class.

It was into this thriving business that Frank A. Munsey (1854-1925) arrived. Munsey was the son of a farmer from Maine and was living in Augusta when he overheard E.C. Allen, the publisher of the story paper People’s Literary Companion, talking about his experiences in publishing. Munsey was sufficiently inspired by Allen’s words to move to New York City and form the Frank A. Munsey company. His first magazine was Golden Argosy, a story paper which was moderately successful but in no way challenged the major magazines despite having good production values and being close to what would in the 20th century be called a “slick,” the more expensive and refined alternative to the pulps. In 1889 Munsey began publishing Munsey’s Weekly, which like Golden Argosy was a slick but unlike Golden Argosy was only middling successful.

In 1893 Munsey changed course and made Munsey’s Weekly, a weekly costing twenty-five cents, into Munsey’s Magazine, a monthly costing ten cents. Munsey’s Magazine was immediately successful, but still had the glossy paper, photographs, and commissioned articles of its earlier incarnation. A similar change to Golden Argosy in 1895, changing its name to Argosy (it had gone monthly in 1894), failed to produce a similar success. Faced with a persistent financial loser in Argosy, Munsey considered combining it with Munsey’s Magazine but instead decided to cut costs still further. He dropped the non-fiction articles and photographs from Argosy and switched from glossy paper to the much less expensive wood pulp paper. The result was the October 1896 issue of Argosy, a cheaply-produced and cheap-looking collection of stories and serials from William Murray Graydon (“The Captives of the Czar”), Matthew White, Jr. (“The Affair of Morris Davidson,” Part 1, and “Penrhyn’s Odd Romance,” Part 2), and “Oliver Optic,” a.k.a. William Taylor Adams (“Making a Man of Himself,” Part 1), among others.

It was an immediate hit, and its circulation shot up and continued to increase, reaching 700,000 at its peak in the 1910s. Despite this, no other publisher imitated Munsey and produced an inexpensive all-fiction magazine until 1904, when Street & Smith discovered that its Popular Magazine, launched in November 1903 as a magazine for boys, was primarily read by men. Street & Smith responded by increasing the page count of Popular Magazine from 96 pages to 192, and placing stories by popular authors in each issue, including Louis Vance, J.S. Fletcher, and Scott Campbell. Popular’s sales increased, and when it reprinted H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha in 1905 it became a legitimate rival to Argosy. Munsey responded by creating The All-Story Magazine in 1905, and Chicago’s Story Press Corporation entered the cheap fiction magazine field with Monthly Story Magazine in May 1905, and from that point forward the pulps could legitimately be considered a separate and distinct market and magazine form.

The pulps began as general-interest fiction magazines, with a typical issue containing stories across genres from costumed aviator adventure to schoolmarm romance, but within a few years the pulps began to specialize. The pulps relied on newsstand sales for the lion’s share of their profit, and exploiting niche markets became the more profitable choice for pulp publishers rather than trying to master the increasingly competitive market of general fiction magazines.

The first specialist pulp was The Railroad Man’s Magazine, which began life in 1906 and continued publishing railroad-oriented fiction until 1979, arguably making it the longest-running and most successful pulp of them all. Curiously, though, The Railroad Man’s Magazine (later Railroad Stories and Railroad Magazine) inspired few imitators, despite its success. Secondary critical works mention Railroad Detective Stories as the only other major railway pulp—but the mere existence of Railroad Detective Stories has not been confirmed.

The first major genre chosen for specialization was general adventure, which was in many ways a logical early choice. Many of the readers of the pulps were young men, and adventure fiction, whether set in France during World War One or on a ship on the Mediterranean in the early 16th century, was exactly the sort of enjoyable escapism they wanted. Adventure (U.S.), perhaps the greatest pulp of them all (and tabbed “No. 1 Pulp” by Time in 1935), began in 1910.

Detective and mystery pulps soon followed. Detective dime novels had always been popular with readers, and for a few years after the debut of the pulps the mystery dime novels continued to sell competitively. But in 1915 the heavyweight dime novel detective, Nick Carter, had his final dime novel magazine, Nick Carter Stories, cancelled by Street & Smith, which replaced it with Detective Story Magazine, an all-mystery pulp which lasted until 1949. Black Mask, the most famous of the detective pulps, debuted in 1920, but it didn’t shift to an all-mystery format until a few years later, after the debut of Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams and the beginning of the hard-boiled detectives.

Westerns had been, if anything, more popular in the dime novel form than had been mysteries, and the last of the Western dime novels, New Buffalo Bill Weekly, lasted until 1919. But Street & Smith cancelled it–as with Nick Carter Stories, Buffalo Bill’s sales were fading in the face of pulp competition–and published Western Story Magazine, the first and greatest of Street & Smith’s Western pulps. Like Detective Story Magazine, Western Story Magazine lasted until 1949 (and had a three year revival in the mid-1950s from Popular Publications). Even during the heyday of the Western pulps, the 1930s, Western Story Magazine remained primus inter pares.

Slighted by modern pulp aficionados and ignored by the critics, romance pulps were perhaps the most popular genre among the pulps. The first all-romance pulp was Street & Smith’s Women’s Stories, which lasted for only a year (1913-1914) as Women’s Stories before being reinvented as the mostly-romance Live Stories. Live Stories’ sales were respectable but not impressive, and it wasn’t until the debut of Street & Smith’s Love Story Magazine, in 1921, that the romance genre began to develop as a functioning pulp genre. Love Story Magazine was a success but the genre didn’t take off until the late 1920s, at roughly the same time as its pornographic cousin, the spicy pulp genre. At its height Love Story Magazine had a circulation that rivaled Argosy’s and had dozens of competitors (130 in all) in subgenres ranging from underworld romance (Underworld Romances, later Underworld Love Stories) to cowboy romance (thirty pulps).

Street & Smith’s Sport Story Magazine began its twenty-year run in 1923. It has a few similarities to Love Story Magazine. Like Love Story Magazine it was the most successful of the sports pulps. Like Love Story Magazine it had numerous competitors, covering sports from baseball to boxing. And like Love Story Magazine it was almost alone on the market for some time. It wasn’t until 1933, when All-America Sports Magazine debuted, that the sports pulp became a viable genre and competition for Sport Story Magazine appeared.

For most modern readers, the word “pulp” conjures up images of the major heroes of the pulps: the Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Spider. But the hero pulps were relatively late arrivals on the scene, with The Shadow, A Detective Magazine first appearing in 1931. The Shadow had actually debuted a year earlier on the radio show Detective Story Magazine Hour, but he proved popular enough to headline his own magazine (aided, no doubt, by the show’s narration, memorably performed by Orson Welles). The Shadow was successful, but the next hero pulp, Phantom Detective, only followed two years later. The Phantom Detective is generally ignored and forgotten today but in his time he was the major rival to the Shadow and Doc Savage. It was Phantom Detective’s success, and not The Shadow’s, that led to the appearance later that year of the major hero pulps, including Doc Savage, Black Bat, and G-8, and they in turn established the hero pulp genre.

1933 also saw the introduction of the weird menace pulps. Popular Publication’s Dime Mystery Book Magazine was a run-of-the-mill mystery pulp that struggled against better competition, so the publisher, Henry Steeger, radically revamped it with the October 1933 issue. Dime Mystery Book became Dime Mystery Magazine, and the magazine’s content changed from stories like “The Blue Lantern Murderer” and “The Army-Post Mystery” to stories like “House of Vanished Brides” and “Blood on Its Paws.” The combination of terror, sadism, sex, and lurid covers was immediately popular and inspired several imitators. 

Amazing Stories was the first of the science fiction pulps and lasted for decades (1926-1953) but did not immediately inspire imitators or competitors. A few science fiction pulps appeared in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but it wasn’t until 1937, when John W. Campbell Jr. became editor of Astounding Stories, that science fiction pulps were at all significant to the pulp marketplace. 

World War Two was the beginning of the end for the pulps. Many fell victim to wartime paper restrictions, and, after the war, changing audience tastes and the advent of the paperback book market. Then television crippled the pulps’ circulation. When Street & Smith cancelled its line of pulps in 1949, the genre was dealt a mortal blow, although it lingered on in diminished fashion into the early 1950s.

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