Michael Marotta's Blog

23 Dec 2016

The Wizard of Oz: Numismatics and American Myth

Coins-United States | Michael Marotta

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.  

This article originally appeared as "The Wizard of Oz: Child's Tale or Numismatic Allegory," The Centinel, (Central States Numismatic Society) Vol. 58, no. 2, Summer 2010, p. 58-61.

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.  22 December 2016.  Wayne Homren, editor of the E-Sylum mail list of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, asked me about this article and where it was published.  I announced my intentions to publish there before submitting the article to The Centinel. Also, I sent a bibliography of sources.  Answering Wayne's email today, I included these Internet links:

I posted a discussion topic on CoinTalk.com

I posted the bibliography on Rec.Collecting.Coins and it was copied by other people to other forums (fora), as for instance:
Apparently, I uploaded the Centinel article to Scribd:

More recently (2014), I put the discussion up on ObjectivistLiving:



Level 6

Truly interesting blog! I also agree with CoinLady...lots of symbolism...


Level 5

Have you done any further work on the topic?


Level 5

The story makes people think about the possibilities - true or false - fiction or non-fiction. An interesting read.


Level 7

I saw a show on t.v. the other day exactly about this story. I could not believe what I was hearing and what they were saying but they wouldn't of made the show unless there was something behind it. Thanks Mike. You've done it again like always!

Conan Barbarian

Level 5

i found this very interesting i agree with coinlady PS did you mean to post it 5 times on the blogs


Level 6

Most interesting! I would like to see this published in a magazine for wider readership. This would appeal to a large number of readers, non-collectors too. I had heard of the symbolism in The Wizard of Oz, but never treated in such detail as in this blog. Great job!

    No tags are attached to this post.
We use cookies to provide users the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your cookie settings, we'll assume that you agree to receive all cookies on money.org. You may disable cookies at any time using your internet browser configuration. By continuing to use this website, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use. To learn more about how we use cookies and to review our privacy policy, click here.