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American Women: Resources from the Rare Book and Special Collections

Women in Popular Culture

Dime Novels

Nathaniel Orr, engraver. The lost trail. Beadle's Dime Novels, no. 71. 1864. Dime Novel Collection. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Dime Novel Collection includes nearly 40,000 titles, acquired primarily by copyright deposit, and is representative of the popular pulp fiction published between 1860 and 1933, which, through wide distribution, helped to shape the nation's perception of itself. (See also Pulp Fiction, in the Serial and Government Publications Division.) The first dime novel, Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (Beadle's Dime Novels, series 17, no. 1), was an American romance by Ann S. Stephens (1813-1886). In fact, women wrote many of the stories in this collection of dime novels, which also often feature women or depict them in their cover art.

Two extremely rare pieces by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), The Skeleton in the Closet and The Mysterious Key, appear in 1867 issues of the Ten Cent Novelettes (series 189). One particularly intriguing title in the Police Gazette Library (series 128), Female Sharpers of New York, Their Haunts and Habits, Their Wiles and Their Victims (1883), describes the shadowy activities of blackmailers, streetwalkers, shoplifters, witches, and gamblers.

Other authors represented are Mary A. Denison (1826-1911), Laura Jean Libbey (1862-1924), Mrs. Alexander McVeigh Miller (1850-1937), Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1806-1893), and Metta V. Victor (1831-1885), who was editor of Home. Beadle's Handbooks (series 20) includes manuals on dressmaking and millinery, beauty, letter writing, and household management. An extensive run of the Seaside Library includes the work of Charlotte Mary Brame (1836-1884), Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (1855-1897), Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (1837-1915), and Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) and is accessible through a separate card file.

There is no subject guide to this popular fiction, but bibliographies and series guides can help to identify genres that may be fruitful and the reference staff can offer informed guidance.

Manuscript Plays

The Manuscript Play Collection consists of more than 3,000 typescripts submitted for copyright deposit, 1876-1945, and includes works by and about women, some of which were never published or performed. Representative titles include Mrs. C. F. McLean's “The Flying Machine” (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1894), Guido Marburg's “Typewriter Girl” (New York, 1897), Garda Brown Wise's “Must Women Choose?” (New York, 1924), and Frank McGrath's “Carry Nation, a Chronicle Play” (1932). 

A reading room card file, arranged alphabetically by author, provides access to this collection. (Other copyright deposit playscripts are held in the Manuscript Division.)

Reserve Storage Drama Collection

Also acquired through copyright deposit are nearly 6,000 dramas, published between 1870 and 1920, for use by amateur performers. Representative works by and about women in this Reserve Storage Drama Collection include Ida M. Buxton's Matrimonial Bliss and A Sewing Circle (Clyde, Ohio: A. D. Ames, 1884 and 1885), Woman's Rights, a Comedy by Sylvan Drey of the Baltimore Bar (Baltimore, 1882), J. A. Fraser's Bloomer Girls, or Courtship in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Co., 1896), and Sophie Perkins's Walk This Way, Please, a Satire on Shopping (Chicago: T. S. Denison, 1917.

A reading room card file, arranged alphabetically by author, provides access to this collection.

Soldier's Wife. 19th century. Broadside Song Sheets. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Theater Playbills and Songsheets

Performance information on some nineteenth-century actresses and playwrights may be culled from over 3,000 playbills in the Theater Playbills Collection. Primarily announcing performances of plays in Washington, D.C. and New York City, these playbills also describe productions of After Dark or Neither Maid, Wife, nor Widow in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1868, and Bachelor's Wives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1896. Other play titles include Becky Sharp, Belles of the Kitchen, School of Reform, Telephone Girl, Temperance Town, Way to Win a Woman, and Women of Achievement.

"Playbills" Card File

A reading room card file, labeled “Playbills” and arranged alphabetically by play title, provides access to this collection.

Broadside Songsheets

Insights into the place of women in popular culture may be gleaned from browsing through more than 4,000, nineteenth-century Broadside Songs held in the division. Lyrics of popular songs honor mothers and celebrate women at work and at leisure. Representative titles include “My Mother Dear,” “Human Equality,” “The Song of the Shirt,” “Red Petticoat,” “The Wife's Lament,” “A New Temperance Song,” and “Gay and Happy,” which is listed as being “composed and sung by Miss Anne Rush, the Philadelphia Vocalist.”

Playbill and Songsheet Digital Collections