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.
Although the Wizard of Oz might be most famous today for the 1939 movie, starring Judy Garland, the book was originally written in the 1890s by author L. Frank Baum. And it turns out that the Wizard of Oz is full of hidden political symbolism, which sometimes seems barely hidden at all.
But no one noticed the clear parallels to American politics in the 1890s until a historian named Henry Littlefield published an analysis of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1964. For decades, people had dismissed Baum's book as a fairytale for children. But in fact, it carried strong messages about the biggest problems facing America at the end of the nineteenth century.
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is an orphan living in Kansas, a dull, gray place that has lost its vibrancy. According to historian Quentin Taylor, Dorothy represents "each of us at our best – kind but self-respecting, guileless but levelheaded, wholesome but plucky." She is, in short, "the girl next door," and she represents the average American looking for a solution to her simple problems.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the state of Kansas was going through a terrible time. Droughts, harsh winters, and invading grasshoppers scorched the prairie. Devastated farmers blamed all sorts of forces: Wall Street, the railroads, politicians, or nature itself. In fact, the tribulations of America's farmers gave rise to the Populist movement, which promised solutions. And The Wizard of Oz contained coded symbolism that supported Populism.
The poor Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz is convinced that he doesn't have a brain. But his "terrible sense of inferiority and self doubt," according to Littlefield, is actually because of years of ridicule. In one 1896 article, for example, Kansas farmers were accused of "ignorance, irrationality and general muddle-headedness."
The Populist party, new to the scene at the end of the 1800s, was primarily made up of farmers who were mocked by everyone else. They were called deluded simpletons and radicals. But the Scarecrow proves that he isn't stupid – he shows common sense and resilience on the journey. The story implies that farmers are not as stupid as their political opponents suggest.
In the 1890s, the US was in the middle of an industrial revolution. And that shift created a lot of workers who weren't being treated well by their bosses. Enter Baum's Tin Woodman. He represents a dehumanized worker, who was literally turned into tin by the Wicked Witch of the East – the Tin Man was once a strong, healthy worker, but after the witch cursed him, he accidentally chopped off his own limbs. Each was replaced with tin, transforming the worker into the Tin Man.
The Tin Man represents factory workers who have lost their heart in the new economy. And the symbolism goes even deeper. The Tin Man is rusted when Dorothy first meets him, paralleling the high unemployment during the depression of the 1890s. But he is ready to work, as Dorothy demonstrates by giving him just a few drops of oil.