Pulp magazines (also referred to as "the pulps") were inexpensive fiction magazines that were published from 1896 until around 1955. The term "pulp" derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed due to their cheap nature. In contrast, magazines printed on higher-quality paper were called "glossies" or "slicks". The typical pulp magazine had 128 pages;[1] it was 7 inches (18 cm) wide by 10 inches (25 cm) high, and 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) thick, with ragged, untrimmed edges. Pulps were the successors to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short-fiction magazines of the 19th century.

Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines were best known for their lurid, exploitative, and sensational subject matter, even though this was but a small part of what existed in the pulps. Digest magazines and men's adventure magazines were also regarded as pulps. Modern superhero comic books are sometimes considered descendants of "hero pulps"; pulp magazines often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters, such as Flash Gordon, The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Phantom Detective.

The pulps gave rise to the term pulp fiction in reference to run-of-the-mill, low-quality literature. Successors of pulps include paperback books, such as hardboiled detective stories and erotic fiction.[2][3][4]





Before pulp magazines, Newgate novels (1840s-1860s) fictionalized the exploits of real-life criminals. Later, British sensation novels gained peak popularity in the 1860s-1870s. Sensation novels focused on shocking stories that reflected modern-day anxieties, and were the direct precursors of pulp fiction.[5][6]

The first "pulp" was Frank Munsey's revamped Argosy magazine of 1896, with about 135,000 words (192 pages) per issue, on pulp paper with untrimmed edges, and no illustrations, even on the cover. The steam-powered printing press had been in widespread use for some time, enabling the boom in dime novels; prior to Munsey, however, no one had combined cheap printing, cheap paper and cheap authors in a package that provided affordable entertainment to young working-class people. In six years, Argosy went from a few thousand copies per month to over half a million.[7]

Street & Smith, a dime novel and boys' weekly publisher, was next on the market. Seeing Argosy's success, they launched The Popular Magazine in 1903, which they billed as the "biggest magazine in the world" by virtue of its being two pages (the interior sides of the front and back cover) longer than Argosy. Due to differences in page layout however, the magazine had substantially less text than Argosy. The Popular Magazine did introduce color covers to pulp publishing, and the magazine began to take off when in 1905 the publishers acquired the rights to serialize Ayesha (1905), by H. Rider Haggard, a sequel to his popular novel She (1887). Haggard's Lost World genre influenced several key pulp writers, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Talbot Mundy and Abraham Merritt.[8] In 1907, the cover price rose to 15 cents and 30 pages were added to each issue; along with establishing a stable of authors for each magazine, this change proved successful and circulation began to approach that of Argosy. Street and Smith's next innovation was the introduction of specialized genre pulps, with each magazine focusing on a particular genre, such as detective stories, romance, etc.[9]

Cover of the pulp magazine Spicy Detective Stories vol. 2, #6 (April 1935) featuring "Bullet from Nowhere" by Robert Leslie Bellem

Peak of popularity


At their peak of popularity in the 1920s–1940s,[10] the most successful pulps sold up to one million copies per issue. In 1934, Frank Gruber said there were some 150 pulp titles. The most successful pulp magazines were Argosy, Adventure, Blue Book and Short Stories, collectively described by some pulp historians as "The Big Four".[11] Among the best-known other titles of this period were Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Love Story Magazine, Marvel Tales,[12] Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown, Weird Tales and Western Story Magazine.[12]

During the economic hardships of the Great Depression, pulps provided affordable content to the masses, and were one of the primary forms of entertainment, along with film and radio.[10]

Although pulp magazines were primarily an American phenomenon, there were also a number of British pulp magazines published between the Edwardian era and World War II. Notable UK pulps included The Pall Mall Magazine, The Novel Magazine, Cassell's Magazine, The Story-Teller, The Sovereign Magazine, Hutchinson's Adventure-Story and Hutchinson's Mystery-Story.[13] The German fantasy magazine Der Orchideengarten had a similar format to American pulp magazines, in that it was printed on rough pulp paper and heavily illustrated.[14]

World War II and market decline

Pulp magazines began to decline during the 1940s, giving way to paperbacks, comics and digest-sized novels

During the Second World War paper shortages had a serious impact on pulp production, starting a steady rise in costs and the decline of the pulps. Following the model of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1941, some magazines began to switch to digest size: smaller, sometimes thicker magazines. In 1949, Street & Smith closed most of their pulp magazines in order to move upmarket and produce slicks.[15]

Competition from comic-books and paperback novels further eroded the pulps' market share, but it has been suggested the widespread expansion of television also drew away the readership of the pulps.[10] In a more affluent post-war America, the price gap compared to slick magazines was far less significant. In the 1950s, men's adventure magazines also began to draw some former pulp readers.

The 1957 liquidation of the American News Company, then the primary distributor of pulp magazines, has sometimes been taken as marking the end of the "pulp era"; by that date, many of the famous pulps of the previous generation, including Black Mask, The Shadow, Doc Savage, and Weird Tales, were defunct (though some of those titles have been revived in various formats in the decades since).[7] Almost all of the few remaining former pulp magazines are science fiction or mystery magazines, now in formats similar to "digest size", such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, though the most durable revival of Weird Tales began in pulp format, though published on good-quality paper. The old format is still in use for some lengthy serials, like the German science fiction weekly Perry Rhodan (over 3,000 issues as of 2019).

Over the course of their evolution, there were a huge number of pulp magazine titles; Harry Steeger of Popular Publications claimed that his company alone had published over 300, and at their peak they were publishing 42 titles per month.[16] Many titles of course survived only briefly. While the most popular titles were monthly, many were bimonthly and some were quarterly.

The collapse of the pulp industry changed the landscape of publishing because pulps were the single largest sales outlet for short stories. Combined with the decrease in slick magazine fiction markets, writers trying to support themselves by creating fiction switched to novels and book-length anthologies of shorter pieces. Some ex-pulp writers like Hugh B. Cave and Robert Leslie Bellem had moved on to writing for television by the 1950s.



Pulp magazines often contained a wide variety of genre fiction, including, but not limited to:

The American Old West was a mainstay genre of early turn of the 20th-century novels as well as later pulp magazines, and lasted longest of all the traditional pulps. In many ways, the later men's adventure ("the sweats") was the replacement of pulps.

Many classic science fiction and crime novels were originally serialized in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Black Mask.

Notable original characters

November 1927 issue of Black Mask, featuring The Continental Op

While the majority of pulp magazines were anthology titles featuring many different authors, characters and settings, some of the most enduring magazines were those that featured a single recurring character. These were often referred to as "hero pulps" because the recurring character was almost always a larger-than-life hero in the mold of Doc Savage or The Shadow.[18]

Popular pulp characters that headlined in their own magazines:

Popular pulp characters who appeared in anthology titles such as All-Story or Weird Tales:



Pulp covers were printed in color on higher-quality (slick) paper. They were famous for their half-dressed damsels in distress, usually awaiting a rescuing hero. Cover art played a major part in the marketing of pulp magazines. The early pulp magazines could boast covers by some distinguished American artists; The Popular Magazine had covers by N. C. Wyeth, and Edgar Franklin Wittmack contributed cover art to Argosy[19] and Short Stories.[20] Later, many artists specialized in creating covers mainly for the pulps; a number of the most successful cover artists became as popular as the authors featured on the interior pages. Among the most famous pulp artists were Walter M. Baumhofer, Earle K. Bergey, Margaret Brundage, Edd Cartier, Virgil Finlay, Frank R. Paul, Norman Saunders, Emmett Watson, Nick Eggenhofer, (who specialized in Western illustrations), Hugh J. Ward, George Rozen, and Rudolph Belarski.[21] Covers were important enough to sales that sometimes they would be designed first; authors would then be shown the cover art and asked to write a story to match.

Later pulps began to feature interior illustrations, depicting elements of the stories. The drawings were printed in black ink on the same cream-colored paper used for the text, and had to use specific techniques to avoid blotting on the coarse texture of the cheap pulp. Thus, fine lines and heavy detail were usually not an option. Shading was by crosshatching or pointillism, and even that had to be limited and coarse. Usually the art was black lines on the paper's background, but Finlay and a few others did some work that was primarily white lines against large dark areas.

Authors and editors


Another way pulps kept costs down was by paying authors less than other markets; thus many eminent authors started out in the pulps before they were successful enough to sell to better-paying markets, and similarly, well-known authors whose careers were slumping or who wanted a few quick dollars could bolster their income with sales to pulps. Additionally, some of the earlier pulps solicited stories from amateurs who were quite happy to see their words in print and could thus be paid token amounts.[22]

There were also career pulp writers, capable of turning out huge amounts of prose on a steady basis, often with the aid of dictation to stenographers, machines or typists. Before he became a novelist, Upton Sinclair was turning out at least 8,000 words per day seven days a week for the pulps, keeping two stenographers fully employed. Pulps would often have their authors use multiple pen names so that they could use multiple stories by the same person in one issue, or use a given author's stories in three or more successive issues, while still appearing to have varied content. One advantage pulps provided to authors was that they paid upon acceptance for material instead of on publication. Since a story might be accepted months or even years before publication, to a working writer this was a crucial difference in cash flow.

Some pulp editors became known for cultivating good fiction and interesting features in their magazines. Preeminent pulp magazine editors included Arthur Sullivant Hoffman (Adventure),[23] Robert H. Davis (All-Story Weekly), Harry E. Maule (Short Stories),[24] Donald Kennicott (Blue Book), Joseph Shaw (Black Mask), Farnsworth Wright (Weird Tales, Oriental Stories), John W. Campbell (Astounding Science Fiction, Unknown) and Daisy Bacon (Love Story Magazine, Detective Story Magazine).[25]


Well-known authors who wrote for pulps include:

Sinclair Lewis, first American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, worked as an editor for Adventure, writing filler paragraphs (brief facts or amusing anecdotes designed to fill small gaps in page layout), advertising copy and a few stories.[26]


Cover of the pulp magazine Dime Mystery Book Magazine, January 1933



The term pulp fiction is often used for massmarket paperbacks since the 1950s. The Browne Popular Culture Library News noted:

Many of the paperback houses that contributed to the decline of the genre–Ace, Dell, Avon, among others–were actually started by pulp magazine publishers. They had the presses, the expertise, and the newsstand distribution networks which made the success of the mass-market paperback possible. These pulp-oriented paperback houses mined the old magazines for reprints. This kept pulp literature, if not pulp magazines, alive. The Return of the Continental Op reprints material first published in Black Mask; Five Sinister Characters contains stories first published in Dime Detective; and The Pocket Book of Science Fiction collects material from Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories.[27] But note that mass market paperbacks are not pulps.

In 1991, The Pulpster debuted at that year's Pulpcon, the annual pulp magazine convention that had begun in 1972. The magazine, devoted to the history and legacy of the pulp magazines, has published each year since. It now appears in connection with PulpFest, the summer pulp convention that grew out of and replaced Pulpcon. The Pulpster was originally edited by Tony Davis and is currently edited by William Lampkin, who also runs the website ThePulp.Net. Contributors have included Don Hutchison, Robert Sampson, Will Murray, Al Tonik, Nick Carr, Mike Resnick, Hugh B. Cave, Joseph Wrzos, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Chet Williamson, and many others. [28]

In 1992, Rich W. Harvey came out with a magazine called Pulp Adventures reprinting old classics. It came out regularly until 2001, and then started up again in 2014.[29]

In 1994, Quentin Tarantino directed the film Pulp Fiction. The working title of the film was Black Mask,[30] in homage to the pulp magazine of that name, and it embodied the seedy, violent, often crime-related spirit found in pulp magazines.

In 1997 C. Cazadessus Jr. launched Pulpdom, a continuation of his Hugo Award-winning ERB-dom which began in 1960. It ran for 75 issues and featured articles about the content and selected fiction from the pulps. It became Pulpdom Online in 2013 and continues quarterly publication.

After 2000, several small independent publishers released magazines which published short fiction, either short stories or novel-length presentations, in the tradition of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. These included Blood 'N Thunder, High Adventure and a short-lived magazine which revived the title Argosy. These specialist publications, printed in limited press runs, were pointedly not printed on the brittle, high-acid wood pulp paper of the old publications and were not mass market publications targeted at a wide audience. In 2004, Lost Continent Library published Secret of the Amazon Queen by E.A. Guest, their first contribution to a "New Pulp Era", featuring the hallmarks of pulp fiction for contemporary mature readers: violence, horror and sex. E.A. Guest was likened to a blend of pulp era icon Talbot Mundy and Stephen King by real-life explorer David Hatcher Childress.

In 2002, the tenth issue of McSweeney's Quarterly was guest edited by Michael Chabon. Published as McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, it is a collection of "pulp fiction" stories written by such current well-known authors as Stephen King, Nick Hornby, Aimee Bender and Dave Eggers. Explaining his vision for the project, Chabon wrote in the introduction, "I think that we have forgotten how much fun reading a short story can be, and I hope that if nothing else, this treasury goes some small distance toward reminding us of that lost but fundamental truth."

The Scottish publisher DC Thomson publishes "My Weekly Compact Novel" every week.[31] It is literally a pulp novel, though it does not fall into the hard-edged genre most associated with pulp fiction.[citation needed]

From 2006 through 2019, Anthony Tollin's imprint Sanctum Books has reprinted all 182 Doc Savage pulp novels, all 24 of Paul Ernst's Avenger novels, the 14 Whisperer novels from the original pulp series and all but three novels of the entire run of The Shadow (most of his publications featuring two novels in one book).[32]

In 2021 Dave Martel started to release issues of Bizarchives, a publication of modern-day pulp fiction and weird tales.

See also



  1. ^ Davis, Tony (October 1, 2021). "Pulps: the early years". ThePulp.Net. Retrieved March 23, 2024.
  2. ^ Romney, Rebecca (April 6, 2018). "When Classic Detective Novels Became Sexy Pulps". CrimeReads. Retrieved July 23, 2023.
  3. ^ Sharp, Sarah Rose (August 4, 2021). "The Erotic Nostalgia of Lesbian Pulp Fiction". Hyperallergic. Retrieved July 23, 2023.
  4. ^ Rabinowitz, Paula (2014). American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691150604.
  5. ^ Hoglund, Johan (March 16, 2016). The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-04519-9.
  6. ^ Acting with the Voice: The Art of Recording Books. Hal Leonard Corporation. 2004. ISBN 978-0-87910-301-9.
  7. ^ a b "A Two-Minute History of the Pulps", in The Adventure House Guide to the Pulps, edited by Doug Ellis, John Locke, and John Gunnison. Silver Spring, MD, Adventure House, 2000. (p. ii–iv).
  8. ^ See Lee Server, Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers (2002), pg.131.
  9. ^ Reynolds, Quentin. The Fiction Factory ; Or, From Pulp Row to Quality Street: The Story of 100 Years of Publishing at Street & Smith. Random House, 1955. (Covers: Street & Smith, Nick Carter, Max Brand, Buffalo Bill, Frank Merriwell, Gerald Smith, Richard Duffy, Frederick Faust, dime novel, Horatio Alger, Henry Ralston, Ned Buntline, Ormond Smith, Beadle's, Edward Stratemeyer, detective fiction, Laura Jean Libbey, Astounding Science Fiction, Edith Evans)
  10. ^ a b c "Pulp Illustration: Pulp Magazines – Illustration History". illustrationhistory.org. Archived from the original on February 14, 2022. Retrieved January 22, 2020.
  11. ^ Hulse, Ed (2009). "The Big Four (Plus One)". The Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Collecting Pulps. Murania Press. pp. 19–47. ISBN 978-0-9795955-0-9.
  12. ^ a b Server, Lee (1993). Danger Is My Business: an illustrated history of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. pp. 62–65. ISBN 978-0-8118-0112-6.
  13. ^ a b Ashley, Michael (2006). The Age of the Storytellers: British Popular Fiction Magazines, 1880–1950. British Library. ISBN 1-58456-170-X
  14. ^ "Orchideengarten, Der". in: M.B. Tymn and Mike Ashley, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazines. Westport: Greenwood, 1985. pp. 866. ISBN 0-313-21221-X
  15. ^ Ashley, Michael. Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, Volume 2 (2005), pg. 3 ISBN 978-0-85323-779-2
  16. ^ Haining, Peter (1975). The Fantastic Pulps. Vintage Books, a division of Random House. ISBN 0-394-72109-8.
  17. ^ Douglas Ellis, Uncovered: The Hidden Art of the Girlie Pulp, Adventure House, 2003.
  18. ^ Hutchison, Don (1995). The Great Pulp Heroes. Mosaic Press. ISBN 0-88962-585-9.
  19. ^ Hulse, Ed (2009). The Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Collecting Pulps. Muriana Press. pp. 26, 163. ISBN 978-0979595509.
  20. ^ Robinson, Frank M., and Davidson, Lawrence. Pulp Culture – The Art of Fiction Magazines. Collectors Press, 2007. ISBN 1-933112-30-1 (p.42).
  21. ^ The Adventure House Guide to the Pulps, edited by Doug Ellis, John Locke, and John Gunnison. Silver Spring, MD, Adventure House, 2000. (p. xi–xii).
  22. ^ John A. Dinan, Sports in the Pulp Magazines. McFarland, 1998, ISB0786404817 (pp. 130–32).
  23. ^ Bleiler,Richard "Forgotten Giant: Hoffman's Adventure". Purple Prose Magazine, November 1998, p. 3-12.
  24. ^ Sampson,Robert.(1991) Yesterday's Faces:Dangerous Horizons Popular Press, 1991, (p.87).
  25. ^ Locke, John ed. "Editors You Want to Know: Daisy Bacon" by Joa Humphrey in Pulpwood Days: Editors You Want to Know. Off-Trail, 2007. ISBN 0-9786836-2-5 (p. 77). Daisy Bacon (1899?–1986) was nicknamed "Queen of the Woodpulps".
  26. ^ Schorer, M. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, pp. 3–22. McGraw-Hill, 1961.
  27. ^ "They Came from the Newsstand: Pulp Magazines from the Browne Library". Browne Popular Culture Library News. Bowling Green State University. May 31, 1994. Archived from the original on October 6, 2011. Retrieved October 22, 2009.
  28. ^ "About "The Pulpster"". The Pulpster. March 5, 2021. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 5, 2021.
  29. ^ Stephensen-Payne, Phil (2018). "Pulp Adventures". Magazine Data File. Archived from the original on July 10, 2018. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  30. ^ "Pulp Fiction (1994) – Release Info". Archived from the original on March 12, 2019. Retrieved January 21, 2020 – via IMDb.
  31. ^ "DC Thomson Shop – Home Page". Dcthomson.co.uk. Archived from the original on August 18, 2010. Retrieved December 8, 2010.
  32. ^ "Ten Years in the Shadow's Sanctum — Anthony Tollin's Sanctum Books – PulpFest". Archived from the original on September 23, 2020. Retrieved February 11, 2020.



Further reading

  • Dinan, John A. (1983). The Pulp Western: A Popular History of the Western Fiction Magazine in America. Borgo Press. ISBN 0-89370-161-0.
  • Goodstone, Tony (1970). The Pulps: 50 Years of American Pop Culture. Bonanza Books (Crown Publishers, Inc.). ISBN 978-0-394-44186-3.
  • Goulart, Ron (1972). Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine. Arlington House. ISBN 978-0-87000-172-7.
  • Goulart, Ron (1988). The Dime Detectives. Mysterious Press. ISBN 0-89296-191-0.
  • Hamilton, Frank and Hullar, Link (1988). Amazing Pulp Heroes. Gryphon Books. ISBN 0-936071-09-5.
  • Robbins, Leonard A. (1988). The Pulp Magazine Index (six volumes). Starmont House. ISBN 1-55742-111-0.
  • Sampson, Robert (1983). Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines. Volume 1 Glory Figures. Vol. 2 Strange Days. Vol. 3 From the Dark Side. Vol. 4 The Solvers. Vol 5. Dangerous Horizons. Vol. 6. Violent Lives. Bowling Green University Popular Press. ISBN 0-87972-217-7.