P.T. Barnum, Steampunk, And The Fan Convention Of 1889

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With the circus which billed itself as The Greatest Show On Earth coming to a close, I'm reminded of a virtually unknown event in which P.T. Barnum himself was involved, and which pre-figures a countless number of similar events in the 128 years since — a fan convention for readers of a periodical adventure fiction newsstand dime novel / story paper series called Golden Hours. The attached pic is a Golden Hours Club badge from 1889. The series was published by Norman L. Munro, who some might know was technically the publisher of the first Frank Reade story in Boys of New York, though he and soon-to-be-rival publisher Frank Tousey split not too long after that.

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You know how we periodically  work ourselves into a fuss over terms like 'comic book' and 'graphic novel' and whether they really fit?  Same thing with dime novels. Most of them didn't cost a dime and were not what we would consider novels today.  Think of them as the forerunners of the pulps.  Many of them were weeklies, they were available on newsstands everywhere, and they contained way more science fiction, weird fiction, and horror than you think. Naturally, such publications had fans in the same sense that comic books do today, and some publishers ran letters pages and formed fan clubs. We usually think of fandom and conventions as having their roots in science fiction pulps of the 1930s, but a few of the dime novel publishers were very forward-thinking in this regard as well. In 1889, Norman L. Munro held a "national convention" (and called it exactly that) for Golden Hours Club members.

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Featured guests included the legendary P.T. Barnum, and dime novel writer Edward S. Ellis. This would be the general equivalent of having George Lucas and Frank Miller headlining your con today. Barnum was an enormously famous and popular figure in the entertainment of the day, and Ellis, though little-remembered now, was the creator of one of the best-selling dime novel characters of that century (Seth Jones), and more on-point to us here, was also the author of Steam Man of the Prairies — the dime novel which directly inspired Frank Reade and is considered a pivotal work in the history of science fiction.  Think of it as the Action Comics #1 of the dime novel era.  The convention was attended by some 500 readers of Golden Hours a mere six months after Munro started the Golden Hours Club.  It was held at a skating rink which Munro owned in New Jersey.

Other speakers at the convention included other dime novel writers and W.C. Dunn, the editor of Golden Hours. So it's pretty much the same kind of guest list you'd expect from a modern con. It's not exactly the same kind of con that the 1930s sf cons were, but it's a step in that direction. Of Barnum, one newspaper reported on the event that, "The venerable prince of showmen marched down the aisle, his face beaming with a smile of pleasure at the ovation extended him. Near the platform one little urchin extended his hand. Mr. Barnum stopped to take it and a dozen fists were thrust out. Shaking as many as he could he succeeded in making his escape to the platform amid applause the made the walls of the rink tremble."

Looking into this event and the Golden Hours Club and others like it has significantly altered the way I think of the history of organized fandom. Munro himself was an interesting figure and got very rich from dime novel publishing (as did many more of the publishers from that era than you'd think). Murry Guggenheim bought the grounds of his NJ estate after he died, and it is now part of Monmouth University.

About Mark Seifert

Co-founder and Creative director of Bleeding Cool parent company Avatar Press. Bleeding Cool Managing Editor, tech and data wrangler. Machine Learning hobbyist. Vintage paper addict.

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