The term ‘pulp’ comes from the cheap wood pulp used to print the inexpensive fiction magazines first popularized between 1896 through to the 1950’s. During this time a typical pulp magazine consisted of 128 pages on paper 7 inches wide by 10 inches high with raged, untrimmed edges.
The term pulp fiction became synonymous with run-of-the-mill, low-quality literature. They were the successors of the penny dreadfuls and dime novels, known for their lurid, exploitative and sensational subject matter. Many contained stories of superheroes, such as The Shadow, Flash Gordon and Doc Savage.
Frank Munsey’s Argosy Magazine of 1896 is seen as the first pulp fiction publication with 192 pages and no illustrations, even on the cover. It 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.
Next on the market was Street and Smith, a dime novel and boy’s weekly publisher with The Popular Magazine in 1903, boosting 194 pages. It’s success was increased when they serialized Ayesha by H. Rider Haggard in 1905. His Lost World genre influenced many key pulp writers including Robert E. Howard, Talbot Mundy and Edgar Rice Burroughs. In 1907, 30 pages were added to each issue, the price increased by 15 cents and a stable of established writers proved successful. The next innovation was introducing specialized genre pulps within each issue. Popular titles were monthly, many were bimonthly and some were quarterly.
The peak of popularity was in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the most successful pulps selling up to one million copies per issue. Although, by that time there were some 150 pulp titles, the most successful were Argosy, Adventure, Blue Book and Short Stories., collectively known as “The Big Four”.
Primarily and American publication there were also a number of British pulp magazines published between the Edwardian era and World War II. These included the Pall Mall Magazine, The Novel Magazine and The Story-Teller.
Pulp magazines began to decline in the 1940’s, due to paper shortages during the Second World War, when smaller and thicker magazine publishers began publishing paperbacks, comics and digest-sized novels and the heavy competition from comic books, television, and the paperback novel.
When the primary distributor of pulp magazines, American New Company liquidation it was seen as the end of the pulp era. By that time many of the famous pulps were defunct, leaving a few specializing in science fiction or mystery in the digest size format.