Populism and the World of Oz

Update: Thanks to you, our Kickstarter campaign to "Keep Them Ruby" was a success and we have the support we need to conserve and display Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Stay tuned for updates on the project. But our journey on the yellow brick road isn't over yet. Help us conserve Scarecrow's costume from the 1939 movie so that it can join the Ruby Slippers on display and help support a new exhibition devoted to the arts, music, sports, and entertainment. Your support will help to make this project a reality. 

 
Curator Peter Liebhold takes a trip to the children's section of the library for inspiration in understanding the economic factors that promote populism.
 
Scan of cover of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900 features a cartoon lion wearing glasses.
In 1964 Henry Littlefield, a Columbia University-trained historian, wrote a breakthrough article in the scholarly American Quarterly titled “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” In the article, Littlefield made the bold claim that Frank Baum's 1900 book "conceals an unsuspected depth." The Wonderful  Wizard of Oz was, Littlefield thought, “a Midwesterner’s vibrant and ironic portrait of this country as it entered the twentieth century.” Specifically, Littlefield argued that the story of The Wizard of Oz was an elaborate metaphor for the Populist movement (a rising political force in the 1890s) and a critique of the complicated national debates over monetary policy. What made Littlefield's claim bold was its departure from common wisdom. Up until this point The Wizard of Oz was well known in the United States, but only as a popular children’s fairy tale (written in 1900), a successful musical stage production (opened in 1902), and an iconic motion picture (debuted in 1939). 
 
Since most of us don't walk around thinking about the social movements and political debates of the late 1800s, a quick refresher on populism is in order. Similar to parties on our political landscape today, the Populist movement was a rising third-party campaign of angry disenfranchised “plain people” (farmers and, to a smaller degree, factory workers) seeking to wrest power from bankers and business leaders. United under the banner of the People’s (Populist) Party, these men and women sought fundamental economic change in order to break the power of concentrated capital. Populists advocated for bimetallism (the coining of both gold and silver), nationalizing the railroads, a graduated income tax, and a decrease in immigration. They believed that adopting silver (in addition to the gold standard) would pump money into the economy, resulting in limited inflation—a good change for people paying mortgages, a bad one for the banks holding loans.
 
In his close reading of The Wizard of Oz, Littlefield argued that most of the characters and settings in Baum’s fictional world represented real people, places, and ideas from the Populist movement of the 1890s. He expected that most adult readers of the time would have understood Baum’s allusions. A few of the highlights from the article were:
 
1.) The Silver (Ruby) Slippers
 
Photograph of the museum's ruby slippers
When Dorothy’s house lands, killing the Wicked Witch of the East, Dorothy is given a pair of magic slippers. In the book and the play the shoes are silver, not ruby as they were famously depicted in the 1939 film. In his reading of The Wizard of Oz, Littlefield believed that Dorothy was a stand-in for the average American, and that the magic silver shoes represented the late 1890s free silver movement. During the severe depression of 1893-1896, many Populists believed that the federal government should adopt an inflationary monetary policy, freely minting silver money, in order to re-energize the national economy. In contrast, Littlefield thought Oz’s yellow brick road represented the existing gold standard, which fixes U.S. paper currency to a specific price for gold bullion. In his reading, the Emerald City, the terminus of the yellow brick road, is Washington, D.C.
 
2.) The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman
 
Scan of inside cover of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900, features drawings of the tin woodsman and scarecrow holding hands.
On her journey to visit the Wizard, Dorothy meets the scarecrow and the tin woodman. According to Littlefield, the scarecrow, displaying “a terrible sense of inferiority and self doubt,” represents the American farmer (who made up the bulk of the Populist Party). Littlefield cites an 1896 article which accuses Kansas farmers of “ignorance, irrationality and general muddle-headedness.”  By extension, the tin woodman represents the hoped-for other faction in the People’s Party—the factory worker. Dehumanized, the simple laborer has been turned into a machine.
 
3.) The Cowardly Lion
 
McKinley campaign poster, 1900
William McKinley ran for president on a protectionist plank. Pledging support for American workers, he sought high tariffs to make foreign manufactured goods unattractive and he supported the gold standard. His opponent, William Jennings Bryan (who Littlefield suggested was represented by the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz) was famous for his “Cross of Gold” speech. He favored the monetary policy of free silver.
 
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. Littlefied 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.)
 
While further analysis of The Wizard of Oz is probably unnecessary, understanding the factors that promoted the Populist movement in the first place present an opportunity for insight into current events. In retrospect, the concerns that galvanized Populists to action in the 1890s were not as clear cut as they seem at first glance. As economic historian Anne Mayhew points out, ”farmers began to complain about railroad rates, interest rates, and problems of obtaining credit in a period when freight rates and interest rates were falling rapidly and when . . . credit was easily available.” Perhaps American farmers were looking for something to blame as their lives were going through chaotic change. Their protests may be best explained by American agriculture’s general movement into commercial production, international markets, and the cash economy. Mayhew observes that in the modern world farmers “found the railroad agent, the bank officer, the equipment salesman, and the grain elevator operator tyrannical because they did not respond, as the country store owner had earlier, to tales of a bad year, family illness, or other such problems.” 
 
Today, many political and economic pundits talk about the rise of the “new” populists. The protest no longer comes from farmers, however. Now, from Tea Party conservatives to Occupy Wall Street supporters, there is new anger directed toward bankers and business leaders. Remembering the days of low-skilled but highly paid factory work, many disenfranchised Americans struggle and look for someone to blame in a world that has changed and left them significantly out of the picture. 
 
Graphic with text "Help conserve Scarecrow's costume" and small image of Ruby Slippers and Scarecrow's black pointed hat
Peter Liebhold is a co-curator of the American Enterprise exhibition and a curator in the Work and Industry Division at the National Museum of American History.