The Wizard of Oz is a beloved children's story that includes both the book, published in 1900, and the movie, which came out in 1939. For years, fans have been drawn to behind-the-scenes gossip about the movie and the strange conspiracies surrounding The Wizard of Oz. But is there a secret political message also hidden in L. Frank Baum's book?
Historians have found a number of symbols in The Wizard of Oz, and they all point to one thing: American politics in the 1890s, when Baum was writing the book. The Wizard of Oz symbolism goes incredibly deep, from the main characters to the cyclone, those famous slippers, and even Toto. And the central message in the book is all about the rise of Populism and the debate over gold versus silver. Late 19th-century Populists were primarily rural farmers and workers who rallied to demand an increase in releasing an unlimited coinage of silver to circulate more currency as well as income tax reforms, direct election of US senators, and other ways of giving farmers and industrial workers a better playing field in the economy while strengthen political democracy.
It might sound far-fetched, but there is a wealth of evidence to support the theory that Baum was writing a political allegory through the lens of a fanciful children's tale. Baum was a political reporter in the 1890s and he lived in South Dakota for several years, giving him a close-up view of the rise of the Populist movement and the views of American farmers and workers. Is The Wizard of Oz an allegory for politics in the 1890s? Interestingly enough, there are arguably also some parallels to today's political scene, making even the would-be political allegory into a timelessly relevant tale. Read on and decide for yourself.
The Cowardly Lion Is Populist Hero William Jennings Bryan
There are a lot of clues that the Cowardly Lion represented the greatest Populist hero of the 1890s, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, lion. Get it? The symbolism goes deep on this one. Like the Cowardly Lion, Bryan was known for his "roaring." He was even portrayed as a lion by the press.
As the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896 and 1900, Bryan promoted the free-silver movement, arguing that America's gold standard was harming farmers. In his famous "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896, Bryan railed,
"Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
But Bryan was unable to win either election, in part because he couldn't win over eastern workers – just like the Cowardly Lion's claws "could make no impression," on the Tin Man.
The Secret's In The Silver Slippers
The beautiful ruby slippers in the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz don't exist at all in L. Frank Baum's book. That's because the original slippers were silver. They were changed to ruby slippers in the movie to take advantage of the marvels of Technicolor, still a new technology at the time. But once you realize the slippers were originally silver, the political message becomes loud and clear.
Farmers wanted to return to free silver to protect them from the economic harm caused by the gold standard. And in The Wizard of Oz, the Yellow Brick Road, representing gold, is a dangerous path. It leads to the Emerald City, representing the link between the gold standard and political interests. And it is full of cracks and holes, as Baum writes. The bricks were "very uneven," and sometimes "broken or missing altogether." The Scarecrow, representing farmers, fell onto the bricks again and again. But Dorothy's silver slippers carry her safely around the damage, hinting that returning to a silver and gold standard was the solution to the economic problems of the 1890s.
And just to make it extra clear that The Wizard of Oz is about monetary policy, Baum named his imaginary land Oz – the same as the abbreviation for ounce, the measure used for gold and silver.
The Wicked Witches Represent Powerful Interests In American Politics
The two wicked witches in The Wizard of Oz represent powerful forces in American politics that threaten the country. The Wicked Witch of the East, who Dorothy smashes with her house, is a thinly-veiled reference to Wall Street and all the moneyed interests in the 1890s. She represents financial-industrial interests, and she is the one who stole the Tin Man's heart and enslaved the Munchkins.
The Wicked Witch of the West similarly symbolizes the rich in America's west: bankers, railroad owners, and wealthy oilmen like J.D. Rockefeller. Just as the Wicked Witch of the East enslaves the Munchkins, the witch in the west enslaves the Winkies, who represent Asian laborers in America's West. She is finally dissolved with water – another allusion to the monetary debate over liquidity.
It Turns Out A Lot Of The Wizard Of Oz Is About . . . Fiscal Policy
The Wizard of Oz is an exciting story of a young girl's journey to find her way back home – and her realization that she had the power within her all along. But according to scholars who see political symbolism in the story, it's also all about monetary policy. That's right. In the 1890s, the big debate in American politics was about the gold standard. Under the gold standard, America's paper currency was backed by gold, and anyone could take a dollar to the bank and receive a dollar's worth of gold.
But the gold standard was causing huge monetary problems for America's farmers. Prices were falling. Farmers were defaulting on their loans. Bankers were seizing farms and selling them off, meaning farmers lost their jobs and their homes. And many farmers blamed the gold standard. Before 1873, a dollar could be exchanged for gold or silver - and farmers wanted a return to "free-silver," because the abundance of silver would cause inflation, making it easier for farmers to pay back their loans.
All of this might seem removed from The Wizard of Oz until you consider two things: the importance of the Yellow Brick Road (representing gold) and Dorothy's slippers––which weren't ruby in the book. They were silver.