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The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz:
A Midwest Cyclone of Numismatic Allegory or a Hot Air Balloon?

By Michael E. Marotta.  [This article originally appear in The Centinel of the Central States Numismatic Society, Vol. 58 No. 2, Summer 2010.]


Numismatists Walter Breen, Mitch Sanders, and Lane Brunner joined professors of political science, history and economics who found a rich inventory of allusions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.  According to an impressive list of articles from academic journals and newspaper features, Baum wove the political debates of his time into his fable. Within the story are the Crime of ’73 and the presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan.  Easiest to identify are the characters best known from the 1939 film version. The Scarecrow represents farmers; the Tin Woodman is the industrial worker; Cowardly Lion is Bryan; the Emerald City is the White House; and the Wizard is President McKinley.  All of that is merely an introduction.  Over the last 45 years, each new interpreter uncovered new messages in the text. 


The tradition of reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory of political economy began in 1964 with an article in American Quarterly by Henry M. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.”  A high school history teacher, Littlefield used his ideas to bring the Progressive Era to life for his classes.  His thesis, however, was not wholly invented.  He cited the 1957 biography by Martin Gardner and Russell B. Nye, The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was.  Also, the 1961 biography, To Please a Child by Frank Joslyn Baum and Russell P. MacFall identified Baum as a Democrat. “Stirred by William Jennings Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention, he marched in torchlight parades in behalf of Bryan’s candidacy.”


That said, the populist interpretation explicitly began with Littlefield.  Numismatic elements were minimal.  For instance, Littlefield never mentioned The Crime of ’73 by name.  He allowed that even as there may be elements of allegory, it was not Baum’s primary intention, and some of the parallels fail because the story of Dorothy in Oz is more important.  Littlefield first identified the Tin Woodman, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion, by their accepted associations. However, Littlefield said that the Wizard “might be any President from Grant to McKinley.” (Oddly, when the Wizard is unmasked as a humbug, he is from Omaha in William Jennings Bryan’s state.)


As the Wicked Witch of the West takes advantage of Dorothy’s ignorance about the power of the silver shoes (“ruby slippers” in the movie), Littlefield likened the Witch to Marcus Hanna who held people prisoner by taking advantage of their ignorance.  Littlefield also saw in the Wicked Witch of the West “a diabolical force of Darwinian or Spencerian nature.”  Dorothy melts the Witch with water, life giving and precious to Midwest farmers so often facing drought. Dorothy returns to Kansas with the power of the silver slippers but they fall off her feet over the desert.  With Dorothy in Kansas, and the Wizard seeking Nebraska, Oz is ruled by the Scarecrow (farmers achieve national importance); the Tin Woodman rules in the west (industrialism moves west); and the William Jennings Bryan commands lesser politicians as the Cowardly Lion takes over the old forest to protect the Hammerheads and other small beasts.


In the 1973 Annotated Wizard of Oz, Michael Patrick Hearn granted validity to Littlefield’s broader claims, that as a conscious effort to create an American fairy tale, Baum’s work does reflect elements of his time.  Hearn warned that Littlefield strained to make other points.  That caveat went unheeded as the allegory of Oz took off on an ascent of its own.


On March 19, 1988 the Los Angeles Times carried a feature by political science professor Michael A. Genovese. The work was syndicated and appeared (condensed) on April 17, 1988, in the Chicago Sun-Times.  Repeating the symbols, Genovese added that Oz is an abbreviation for the gold ounce.  The Tin Woodman’s being rusted represents factories shut down during the Depression of 1893. 


In 1989, again reciting the existing symbolisms, professors Michael Watts and Robert F. Smith decided that Oz stands for the ounce of either silver or gold. (“Economics in Literature and Drama,” The Journal of Economic Education, Vol. 20 No. 3.)  While Watts and Smith identified the Wicked Witch of the East as the large industrial corporations, writing “The Politics of Oz” for the San Francisco Chronicle, September 24, 1989, Peter Dreier let them be the Wicked Witch of the West.


Then, Walter Breen spoke.  Generally, sticking close to the Littlefield narrative, Breen paraphrased during his address, “Metallic Panacaeas: Gold Bugs, Silver Crusaders, and the Wizard of Oz,” at the November 8-9, 1989, Coinage of the America’s Conference.  Much greater visibility went to Hugh Rockoff’s rhapsodic 1990 article for the Journal of Political Economy, “ “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory.”  Said Rockoff: “The cyclone is the free silver movement itself. It came roaring out of the West in 1896, shaking the political establishment to its foundations.”  More than just the Eastern Establishment, the Wicked Witch of the East is Grover Cleveland. The Lion falling asleep in the poppy field represents the issue of anti-imperialism, which distracts Bryan from the free silver issue.  Once inside the Emerald City, to see the Wizard, they must travel through seven passages and up three flights of stairs: 73=The Crime of ’73.  Rather than McKinley, the “man behind the curtain” is Marcus Hannah.  McKinley is the Wicked Witch of the West.  Rockhoff identified the Yellow Winkies (not in the movie) as the Filipinos.  In the book, while holding Dorothy prisoner, Wicked Witch of the West steals one of her silver shoes, blocking Dorothy from using them, even if she knew how.  This symbolized McKinley’s clever vacillation, not against bimetallism but wanting first to call an international conference on it.  Rockhoff delved deeper into the book, pointing out that at the end, the Woodman receives an axe with a gold handle and silvery head, while Toto and the Lion wear collars of gold.  In the July 1991 issue of The Numismatist (“Setting the Standards on the Road to Oz”), Mitch Sanders repeated the major elements.


From December 20, 1991, to February 7, 1992, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the pivot for a series of exchanges in the Letters to the New York Times.  Some saw religion, others politics. Michael Patrick Hearn (editor of The Annotated Wizard of Oz) was adamant: Baum was not a populist.  His newspaper, The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, was Republican.  Baum published a poem in the Chicago Times Herald in support of McKinley.  After addressing a Republican rally, Baum was invited to speak to the local Democrats where he gave the same speech to the same admiring applause.


Littlefield’s letter thanked Hearn.  “I absolutely agree with Mr. Hearn that there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology. …

I still think of the possibility of political allusions in "The Wizard of Oz" as a kind of

undercurrent, a context. My original point in the article was not to label Baum,

or to lessen any of his magic, but rather, as a history teacher at Mount Vernon

High School, to invest turn-of-the-century America with the imagery and wonder I

have always found in his stories.”


That, of course, did nothing to stop the inventions. Bradley A Hansen wrote “The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics,” for the Journal of Economic Education, Summer 2002.   Dr. Lane Brunner brought his inventory of interpretations to the ANA’s National Money Show in Charlotte, on March 18, 2007, one of five presentations in two years that he delivered to coin clubs and the Pioneers Museum in Colorado Springs.  Not surprisingly, there is even a Wikipedia entry for “Political Interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”  


The major biographers – Hearn; Gardner and Nye; Baum and MacFall – agree:  in writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum sought to create an American fairy tale.  The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen are often gruesome and in any case archaic.  Baum’s story is filled with the stuff of 19th century America: hot air balloons, colored glasses, and mechanisms.  Moreover, it all works out well for the good guys without their being vengeful or retributive.  That Baum wrote from his time and place is clear.  (In the next Oz book, women take over the kingdom.  Later, the Scarecrow is stuffed with paper money.)  The claim that the books are replete with hidden numismatic messages (7 halls and 3 stairs) is unsupportable.
Addendum.  Not in the original is this bibliography of Sources.

Breen, Walter. “Metallic panaceas : gold bugs, silver crusaders, and the Wizard of Oz.” America's Gold Coinage New York, 1990. Coinage of the America Conference. Proceedings. no. 6 p. [33]-54. American Numismatic Society.

Brunner, Lane, Ph.D. “Gold, Silver and the Wizard of Oz.” Numismatic Theater, National Money Show, American Numismatic Association, Charlotte, North Carolina, March 18, 2007

Daniels, Lee A. “EDUCATION; Vermont College and Bronx School Collaborate to Lure Minority Pupils.(National Desk).”  The New York Times (Feb 8, 1989).

Dighe, Ranjit S., editor The Historian’s Wizard of Oz.  Westport, Connecticut: Fraeger, 2002.  

Dreier, Peter. “The Politics of Oz.” Pacific News Service. 24 September 1989. The San Francisco Chronicle. © 1989 Hearst Communications Inc.

Gardner, Martin and Russell B. Nye, The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was. East Lansing: The Michigan State University Press, 1957. Revised edition 1994.

Genovese, Michael A. “A political scientist on the Yellow Brick Road.” Chicago Sun-Times. 17 April 1988.  © 1988 Chicago Sun Times. (“The following is a condensed version of the controversial article submitted by Michael Genovese to the Los Angelese [sic] Times and syndicated nationally.”)

Genovese, Michael, A. “The Wonderful Wizard Lives On `Oz' Maintains Its Appeal in Our Political Consciousness.” Los Angeles Times.  Mar 19, 1988. Page: 8. Metro; 2; Op Ed Desk.

Hansen, Bradley A. “The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics,” Journal of Economic Education, Summer 2002.  pp 254-264.

Hearn, Michael Patrick. “'Oz’ Author Never Championed Populism.” The New York Times. January 10, 1992.

Hearn, Michael Patrick. The Annotated Wizard of Oz. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1973. Reprinted 2000 with a preface by Martin Gardner.

Koupal, Nancy Tystad. “From the Land of Oz: L. Frank Baum's Satirical View of South Dakota's First Year of Statehood.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Spring, 1990), pp. 46-57.  Montana Historical Society.

Littlefield, Henry M. “‘Oz’ Author Kept Intentions to Himself .” The New York Times. February 7, 1992. (“Baum's story may be taken as a parable on Populism, not a Populist parable. … We will never know if Baum had any conscious allegory in mind.”)

Littlefield, Henry M. “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” American Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1964), pp. 47-58. Johns Hopkins University Press.  (This is the source of the Populism-Bimetallism theory.)

MacDonald, Rich. “The Road to Emerald City is Paved with Good Intentions.” EconEdLink: Council for Economic Education.  posted on: September 9, 1999. Accessed 26June2009.

Parker, David B., “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a “Parable on Populism,” Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians, vol. 15 (1994), pp. 49-63

Ritter, Gretchen. “Silver Slippers and a Golden Cap: L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and Historical Memory in American Politics.” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Aug., 1997), pp. 171-202 Published by: Cambridge University Press.

Rockoff, Hugh. “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory.” The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 98, No. 4 (Aug., 1990), pp. 739-760. The University of Chicago Press.

Rosen, Saul. “No Mysticism in Oz, Just the Populist Credo.” The New York Times. December 20, 1991. 

Sanders, Mitch. “Setting the Standards on the Road to Oz,” The Numismatist, July 1991. Vol. 104, no. 7, p. 1042-1050. The American Numismatic Association, Colorado Springs.

Schwartz, Evan, I. Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009.

Sloan, Don. “The Wizard of Oz Unmasked as the President.” The New York Times. December 25, 1990.

Steinfels, Peter. “Following the Yellow Brick Road, and Finding a Spiritual Path.” The New York Times. November 28, 1991

Taylor, Quentin P. “Money and Politics in the Land of Oz.” The Independent Review (Winter 2005). © Copyright 2006, The Independent Institute.  

Watts, Michael and Robert F. Smith. “Economics in Literature and Drama.” The Journal of Economic Education, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Summer, 1989), pp. 291-307. Heldref Publications.

Wikipedia, “Political Interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” (This page was last modified on 11 May 2009 at 12:53.) Accessed June 26, 2009.

Ziaukus, Tim. “Baum's Wizard of Oz as gilded age public relations.” Public Relations Quarterly, Fall 1998.