Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Not Quite Bingeable: Serial Fiction in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

February 14, 2024

What do you think of when you think of a novel? Is it a single bound volume you picked up from your nearest bookstore or maybe a collection of words in a file you can read on your phone or e-reader? If you were to go and read Dickens today, I am sure your first thought would not be to head to the grocery store and browse the magazine display. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, magazines were a popular way for readers to consume works of fiction in bite-size chunks.

The Henry Ford has a sampling of volumes and loose issues from the 1850s to the mid-1900s. Most notable is our run of Harper’s New Monthly, later just Harper’s Monthly Magazine. Harper’s original mission, as stated in its inaugural issue, was to “place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.” The editors at Harper's recognized that the best writers of the time were not being sold in bookshops but instead were writing for periodical publications.

Harper’s would go on to not only print up-and-coming American authors but pirate pieces from magazines overseas, like those from Household Words, then edited by Charles Dickens, as well as stories already published by Dickens himself. International pieces were a popular selling point and inexpensive for publications because of the lack of regulations on international copyright before the 1891 law known as the Chance Act. This allowed publications like Harper’s Monthly to reproduce works that were already in print, often serially, in places like Britian. Pictured here is Dickens' "The Lawyer’s Story," which was featured in an 1855 Harper’s issue.

The Lawer's Story featured in a 1855 Harper's issue

Excerpt from "The Lawyer's Story".

Other notables found in Harper’s Monthly Magazine include the first publication of Mark Twain in a national magazine, here listed as Mark Swain in the December 1866 issue with "Forty-Three Days in an Open Boat," and later mentioned in his piece, "My Debut as a Literary Person."

Harper's Monthly Magazine, December 1866

Harper's Monthly Magazine, December 1866.

Later, Herman Melville would run a chapter from "Moby Dick," then still being promoted as "The Whale," in the month of its initial publication in October 1851.

Harper's Monthly Magazine, October 1851

Harper's Monthly Magazine, October 1851.

During this time, authors would make most of their writing income from magazine submissions. Bookstores and bound volumes of novels were not as popular as their modern counterparts, and they were much less profitable. Magazines were a cost-effective way for everyday people to consume media and for writers to make sure they were paid for their labors. Because of this mutually beneficial relationship, some of the most prominent authors of the day utilized serial publications like magazines to make a living. Notable authors like Edgar Allen Poe took advantage of this. The first publication of "The Cask of Amontillado" appeared in Godey’s Lady's Book in November 1846.

Godey’s Lady's Book, November 1846

Godey’s Lady's Book, November 1846.

Examples from the 20th century in the Benson Ford Research Center’s collections include Jack London’s "Call of the Wild," which appeared in four installments starting in June 1903 in The Saturday Evening Post.

The Saturday Evening Post, June 1903


The Saturday Evening Post, June 1903. / THF113263, THF113959

Arthur Conan Doyle published his story "The Red Star," later included in his "The Last Galley" short story collection, in Scribner's November 1911 issue, complete with color illustrations.

Scribners, November 1911

Scribner's, November 1911.

As we enter the 1940s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, of "The Great Gatsby" fame, published his last run of short stories in Esquire magazine. The stories were thinly veiled vessels for his feelings about his later life and time in Hollywood. He would die before seeing the run completed.

Esquire magazine, 1940s.

For more information on serialized fiction or any of our collections, please reach out to the staff of the Benson Ford Research Center at

Sarah Andrus is librarian at The Henry Ford.