Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

It All Started with a Book

October 11, 2017 Innovation Impact

THF135495Front cover of original edition of book, 1900. THF135495

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story so familiar to us that it seems to have always been around, like an old folktale passed down from generation to generation. But, in fact, it does have an author—an American one at that—and it isn’t even that old. 

In 1900, L. Frank Baum drew upon real-life experiences to write this strange but compelling fantasy tale for children. Incredibly popular even in its time, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became known as America’s first fairy tale.

Baum himself admitted that he didn’t know where the story came from. But Wizard of Oz enthusiasts (and there are many of them) have spent a great deal of time tracing the influences in Baum’s life that they claim led to the creation of his endearing characters and fantastic settings.

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Print featuring “The Original General Tom Thumb,” 1860. 
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The story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz starts way back when L. Frank Baum was a child. Baum grew up enchanted by the fantastic and sometimes scary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. So when the diminutive Tom Thumb came to town as part of P. T. Barnum’s traveling circus, Baum was astounded.  Not only did Thumb seem to come right out of these fairy tales but he made children like Baum feel less small and somehow more important. Thumb may also have provided the inspiration for the Munchkins. 

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Trade card for artificial limbs, 1893-1917. 
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When Baum was just 12 years old, he witnessed Civil War veterans returning home with missing or prosthetic (artificial) limbs. These wizened vets—with their misshapen or missing limbs—also connected to fairy tales Baum had read and are believed to have provided the inspiration for the Tin Man.

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Hallowe’en postcard, 1917. THF56474

Baum had long complained of scarecrows haunting his dreams, coming alive and chasing him. The Scarecrow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is thought to be related to this ongoing nightmare, as well as a reference to the farmsteads he observed while living out in Dakota Territory as a young newlywed. (This experience, of course, also provided the inspiration for the Gales’ farmstead in Kansas.)

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Hot-air balloon featured on cover of card game box, 1880-1910. THF91796

Hot-air balloons, which existed earlier, had greatly advanced by the time of the Civil War, as a way for the military to observe enemy battle positions. During the 1870s, aeronautical showmen demonstrated their skills with death-defying stunts before crowds of awestruck onlookers. Witnessing these demonstrations inspired Baum to give the Wizard a hot-air balloon in which to help Dorothy return to Kansas.  

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Souvenir Book, Chicago World’s Fair, 1893. THF123529

After trying (and failing) to make a living in Dakota Territory, Baum and his young wife moved to Chicago, just in time for the city’s first great World’s Fair in 1893. This so-called “White City” boasted 200 gleaming white “palaces,” which encircled a series of manicured waterways. Over a period of six months, an astounding 27 million visitors witnessed the fair—nearly 1/4 of the entire American population! Visitors to the fair described it in fantastic terms, like wonderland, dreamscape, and mind-boggling spectacle. Occurring at the same time as one of America’s worst economic depressions, the Chicago World’s Fair was an escape from reality and has been identified as the inspiration for Baum’s Emerald City.

Trade card for Dolly Madison Bread featuring Mother Goose nursery rhyme, 1922. THF286364

While attempting to make a living selling household goods for a department store in Chicago, Baum spent many hours on the road—staring out of railroad cars and staying overnight in nameless hotels.  To pass the time, he started writing stories, drawing from those he recounted to his sons back home.  Among these was a series of stories based upon old Mother Goose nursery rhymes, which was ultimately published.

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Inside cover of original 1900 edition.

While moving in new social circles with other published authors and with artists, Baum met talented illustrator William Wallace Denslow. Denslow, who had also attended the Chicago World’s Fair, created a series of vibrant, wildly imaginative illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that helped readers visualize Baum’s fantastic descriptions. When Baum attempted to turn his book into a theatrical production soon after its publication, Denslow was again brought in to consult on sets and costumes.

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Theatre program, 1903. 
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A one-time actor himself, Baum could both work within the confines and see the imaginative possibilities of the theater. So, it didn’t take much to convince him to attempt to turn his book into a staged musical extravaganza.  His many ideas for special effects and illusions dazzled crowds (and some were later used in the movie). But he was inevitably unhappy with his choice to hand over the script to an independent theater producer, who changed many parts of the story.

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Record album and cover for original movie, 1961-2. 
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In 1938, MGM, a major film studio, decided to turn The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a blockbuster musical film. Baum’s story of hard times—based upon the hardscrabble lives of prairie homesteaders in the late 19th century—lent itself perfectly to the hard times that had returned during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Denslow’s drawings again served as the model for the costumes, and many parts of the story and production stuck to the original. But the filmmakers decided to revise a few things—including changing out Dorothy’s silver slippers for ruby red slippers to take advantage of the new technology of Technicolor. 

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Collectible TV Guides, July 2000. THF286370

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The 1939 film was groundbreaking but it was the TV showing of the film that truly catapulted it into Americans’ lives and hearts. In 1956, the uncut Hollywood film was first shown in one evening on commercial TV. Only audiences with color TV’s at the time could witness the drastic transformation from the dreary black-and-white Kansas settings to the full-color spectacle of the Land of Oz. Beginning in 1959, “The Wizard of Oz” film was shown annually on TV and watching it became a beloved family tradition.

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Party centerpiece, 1970-5. THF157517

Today, the continued publication of Baum’s original book, the annual featuring of the film on TV, film festival showings of the classic film on the big screen, several animated versions of the story that were produced later, and scores of related merchandise have kept The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at the forefront of American popular culture. Successive generations of new fans have embraced its fantastic, yet somehow familiar, themes and characters with unabated enthusiasm.

 Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, is still astounded to see the Land of Oz in all its colorful splendor, as she grew up watching the movie on her family’s black-and-white TV. 

She acknowledges the book, The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, by Rebecca Loncraine (New York: Gotham Books, 2009), as inspiration for this blog post.

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