Is There a Secret Money Lesson Hidden In "The Wizard of Oz?"
Lions and tigers and allegories for the bimetallist fiscal policy and turn of the century agrarian political movements, oh my!
Tomorrow, August 25th, marks the 79th anniversary of the day The Wizard of Oz, one of the most popular and enduring movies of all time opened in theaters across the country. And while Dorothy’s adventures down the Yellow Brick Road with The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Lion remain a key part of the pop culture canon almost 80 years later, there are also many conspiracy theories and alternate readings related to both the movie and the classic L. Frank Baum novel on which it’s based.
And no, we’re not just talking about what happens when you listen to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and sync it up with the Wizard of Oz movie—although that is by far the most famous of the Oz-related theories. There’s another alternative interpretation that started in the 1960’s and that persists to this day—and it has to do with turn of the century economics! Is it possible that this beloved children’s novel is also a parable of U.S. monetary policy? Read on and find out.
This theory hinges on Dorothy’s magical slippers.
If you’ve only ever seen the Wizard of Oz movie and haven’t read the original book, you might not know this, but Dorothy’s magical slippers weren’t always ruby. In L. Frank Baum’s novel, they’re silver! The movie changed them to ruby in order to take advantage of the new Technicolor process that the film employed for the scenes set in Oz.
(Sidebar: A weird side effect of this change is that the copyright for the ruby slippers still belongs to the film, while the rights for the novel sit firmly in the public domain. This is why, in popular Oz-based works like the hit musical Wicked, the slippers remain their original silver, which can be really confusing for people only familiar with the film.)
The funny thing about this seemingly minor change is that the slippers being silver is a crucial part of this theory …
In 1963, high school teacher Henry Littlefield (who was also a Columbia University-trained historian) published an essay in American Quarterly titled The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism. In the piece, he argued that underneath the charming kid’s tale lay a parable of the Populist Movement—a important political force of the 1890s.
According to Littlefield, The Wizard of Oz argued for the importance of abandoning a single gold standard and adopting a “bimetallist” standard for American currency that included silver in addition to gold.
What? Please explain the history here.
Okay, in the 1890’s, America was going through some stuff. A depression from 1893-96 hit a lot of poor folks hard, drought hit farmers even harder, and “Gilded Age” economic policies generally favored bankers over the working classes. One of the things that came out of this was the Populist Movement, which temporarily took the form of the third-party People’s (Populist) Party.
The Populist Movement was an agrarian movement—meaning it was mostly made up of farmers and other people from rural areas—based primarily in the Midwest. The Populists argued that bankers had too much power at the expense of farmers and factory workers.
While the Populists did everything they could to involve factory workers in their cause, it remained mostly a rural and regional phenomenon. Eventually, it’s goals, policies, and candidates were swept up into the Democratic Party.
One of the most important things that the Populist Movement argued for was “bimetallism” which meant adding silver to stores of gold that, at the time, backed U.S. currency. The purpose of the “gold standard” was to link the price of the dollar to the price of gold, thereby preventing inflation (among other things).
The point of this “free silver” policy, on the other hand, was to pump money into the economy and to create inflation—something that would have been bad for lenders (i.e. bankers) but great for borrowers (i.e. farmers) who struggled to obtain credit under the current system.
In 1896, leading Populist politician William Jennings Bryan gave his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention arguing for “bimetallism” and “free silver.” With Populist support, he won the Democratic nomination for President … and went onto lose to William McKinley.
Okay. That’s enough history. So what’s the allegory?
So, remember how, at the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy learns that she actually had the power to return home to Kansas the whole time? All she needed to do was click the heels of her shoes together three times and presto! She would get what she was looking for.
Basically, the silver shoes from the book represent the “free silver” policy. The Yellow Brick Road, meanwhile, represents the gold standard: Dorothy thinks it will lead her to the solution to her problems, but it ultimately does not. Instead, it only leads her to the Emerald City, which represents Washington D.C., a seemingly impressive place that cannot actually help her.
The characters all have stand-ins too: Dorothy represents “Miss Everyman” as Littlefield puts it, while The Scarecrow represents farmers, The Tin Man (“Tin Woodman” in the book) represents factory workers, and The Cowardly Lion represents William Jennings Bryan himself. The Wicked Witch of the West—defeated by water—is drought, and … we’ll let Littlefield describe the Wizard himself:
“The Wizard, a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of papier mache an noise, might be any President from Grant to McKinley. He comes straight from the fair grounds in Omaha, Nebraska, and he symbolizes the American criterion for leadership—he is able to be everything to everybody.”
Savage burn, Henry.
Is The Wizard of Oz REALLY about the gold standard?
Probably not. As we mentioned up top, The Wizard of Oz is like catnip for crazy theories. A lot of that probably has to do with Baum’s tone as an author. He gently satirizes a number of different subjects and ideas, leaving people to read into the specific nature of his target with enthusiastic abandon.
So was Littlefield just trolling? Or was he just a little off his rocker, genuinely believe that Baum was trying to Hypnotoad the nation’s children into supporting inflationary monetary policy? Again, probably not. In an article on Littlefield’s theory for the Smithsonian, curator Peter Liebhold offers an intriguing theory of his own into Littlefield’s motives:
While the literary deconstruction of The Wizard of Oz by Littlefield and subsequent scholars might seem overly strained, their work has been important in creating widespread interest in the history of the 1890s Populist movement, as well as in populism more broadly. Littlefield was inspired to write the article because of his experiences as a high school teacher, and his analysis of The Wizard of Oz has all the markings of a pedagogical technique: he created a fantastic quest that required participants to understand the history of the Populist movement in order to find the clues in Baum’s book. (In order to find Waldo, you need to know what he looks like.)
And even if Littlefield really did believe in Baum’s parable, he was under no delusions as to the author’s true motives. As he puts it, “The allegory always remains in a minor key, subordinated to the major theme and readily abandoned whenever it threatens to distort the appeal of the fantasy.”
The reason The Wizard of Oz has endured so long has nothing to do with its money smarts. It’s because it’s a great story. If anything, moving away from the allegory—by making the shoes ruby instead of silver—has only added to its everlasting appeal.
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