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What colour are Dorothy’s shoes? Or what does The Wizard of Oz tell us about money?

The story of The Wizard of Oz is also the story of the history of money in America. Watch Professor Nicky Marsh explain why.
NICKY MARSH: So we’ve looked at some of the material histories of money, the different kinds of forms it’s taken. And we’ve also looked at the way in which money is made in the contemporary economy, particularly the way in which it originates in private credits and debts. And now, I want to turn to an example from literary history, to Frank L. Baum’s novella from 1900, The Wizard of Oz, to look at the ways in which literary texts have imagined this history of money’s production. So the history of American money has been the history of paper money. America paid for its war against the British, the Revolutionary War, by printing paper money.
And then in the 1860s, America paid for the Civil War by, again, printing paper money. This time, the greenbacks– the name which has still stayed for the dollar. After both wars, America experienced periods of high inflation. The paper money that had been printed to pay for the wars, rapidly became worthless. And after the 1860s, in particular, Americans were left with a deep suspicion of paper money. And this led the nation to resume the gold standard. In the first instance, America was on a bimetal standard in which silver and gold were combined. But in 1873, America went on simply the gold standard. And being on the gold standard meant always a restricted form of money.
The money supply was dependent, not on what governments could print, but on what could be mined or imported into the country. And the restrictions on the money supply exacerbated the depressions that America experienced in the 1870s and, particularly, in the 1890s. And in the 1890s, what the money supply was had become an electoral issue. Presidential battles were fought and won on the kinds of money presidents were promising Americans. And there were three different kinds of positions. There was the gold bugs– those who wanted to return, simply, to the gold standard. There was the Populist movement, who wanted to return to the bimetal standard and have a combination of gold and silver currencies.
And there were also those figures who wanted to return to paper money. And we can see this political debate about what kind of money Americans should have being given in an allegorical form in Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. In the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s shoes are red. But in Frank’s 1900 novella, her shoes are silver. And they are silver, economic historians have suggested, because they represent half of the bimetal standard, and that when they walk on the road, The Yellow Brick Road, to Oz, they unify silver and gold. So Dorothy has been represented as a figurehead for the Populist movement, the movement that wanted to make the money supply freer.
The historical analogy between Dorothy and the Populist movement is given more strength by the figures that Dorothy meets on the way and takes with her. Her march to the Emerald City has been compared to Jacob Coxey’s march to Washington. Cox, he was a proponent of greenbacks. He wanted to return America to the paper money standard. And the people that he took with him on his march– the unemployed workers and the unemployed farmers– have seemed to have their historical counterparts in Dorothy’s rusted Tin Man, who’s no longer able to move, and Dorothy’s Scarecrow, who is stuck in a field and no longer able to farm.
So The Wizard of Oz has been read as an allegory for the return to the bimetal standard, the return to a freer kind of money. But one of the major and interesting questions about The Wizard of Oz, if we read it as an allegory for American monetary debates, is what is Baum telling us about that money. So some critics have suggested that he’s supporting the Populist movement, that Dorothy is our plucky heroine. Whereas other critics have suggested that he’s mocking the Populist movement. Dorothy is childlike and naive. I want to suggest, finally, a different way of reading the story entirely. I want to suggest that Baum is neither simply advocating bimetal standard or critiquing the bimetal standard.
But he’s pointing us to why the economy needs money and what kind of economy he wants to see. Baum was an amazing figure. He was an entrepreneur. He ran a newspaper. He had a string of theatres. He wrote Wizard of Oz. And he was also, in the same year that he published Wizard of Oz, he wrote the book called The Art of Dry Goods and Decorating. And Baum, what he was doing in this book, was one of the first people to imagine the department store. Baum started The Association of Window Dressers.
And his own shop, Baum’s Bazaar, in the depression-hit Kansas, sold not the dry goods that his customers needed, but the consumer goods that he thought that they secretly wanted. Baum’s customers may have wanted these goods. But they weren’t able to pay for them. And when Baum’s shop eventually went bankrupt, the historical records have shown it’s because he was owed so much money. He clothed an entire football team on credit, for example. So Baum left Kansas, returned with his wife and family to Chicago, and there he wrote The Wizard of Oz. And while he was writing The Wizard of Oz, Baum went with Walter Denslow, his illustrator, and visited the World Fair, apparently, every day.
And what the World Fair offered him was an image of this consumerist world of pleasure and decadence that hadn’t yet quite come real in America. So we can see an alternative model for money that Baum was offering in The Wizard of Oz. If we think about the story of Dorothy, not simply as marching to Washington to ask for paper money, but as marching to Chicago to the World Fair to ask for consumerism, to ask for the kinds of paper money, the forms of credit, that made consumerism possible in America at the turn of the century. And we can see this history in one of the odd little stories that the history of the World Fair has uncovered.
The first thing that Dorothy sees when she gets to the Emerald City is green children buying green lemonade with green pennies. And the story of the person who sold the lemonade and its historical counterpart in the real world city of Chicago was someone who played a very important role in the development of consumer credit in America. And this man was Aaron Nusbaum. And he had the concession to sell candies and drinks in the World Fair. And although the World Fair itself didn’t make any money– the exhibits were on show rather than for sale. It was funded by Congress. And it lost money.
The people who did make money out of the World Fair were the people who were able to sell the green lemonade that Dorothy sees. Aaron Nusbaum took his profits from the World Fair, and he bought Sears, Roebuck with it immediately afterwards. And Sears, Roebuck is actually an important company in the history of consumer credit in America because it was one of the first large mail order companies that gave consumer credit to its customers, that enabled those rural people, who Baum had tried and failed to sell fancy goods to, to participate in America’s consumer economy.
So we can see, then, in The Wizard of Oz, not only the political debates about what kind of money America should have, and how the different kinds of money serve different political groups, but we can also see Baum’s desire for a new kind of capitalist consumer economy emerging. What we see in The Wizard of Oz is not simply a debate about the need for a freer money supply, but we see, being given to us in the pleasures and the fantasies of the Emerald City, what this money is for. And for Baum, this money is money that can feed the consumer economy that he is so enchanted by.
But Frank Baum isn’t, of course, the only writer who is interested in what money looked like and who money was for. And in the next steps, we’ll look at other writers who have shaped what our money looks like today.

We can see some of the difficulties that people have with imagining money, and the roles that literary and visual texts have in making them apparent, if we look more closely at one example from American history.

The relationship between politics and money can be read through the history of paper money in America. The history of America, Jason Goodwin has suggested in his book Greenback: the Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America is the history of paper money.

America paid for the revolutionary war with Britain by issuing its own paper money, something that the British government had forbidden them from doing. These first paper dollars, which acted to unite the separate states of the young nation, were called the Continental. However, after the war had been won the money became rapidly worthless, as America faced its debts and struggled to create a new financial infrastructure. The money gave rise to the phrase ‘not worth a continental’, a phrase which circulated far longer than the money itself.

It was a pattern that was repeated in the Civil War of the 1860s. This was was paid for by the issuing of greenbacks – and, again, the period of reconstruction in which America faced the debts of the war saw this paper money become worthless and a deep mistrust of paper money lingered in the national imaginary after this point.

So by the 1890s, the American economy had a serious problem. On the one hand, it was experiencing a very serious and deep depression. On the other, it lacked a secure money source that it could use to grow the economy.

Paper, silver or gold?

The debate became about what kind of money America should use: should it use a paper money (a return to the greenbacks), should it use gold (but there wasn’t enough and so the economy couldn’t grow) or should it continue on what was called the bimetallic standard – in which it used both silver and gold (there was more, but it was sound).

These differences shaped American politics in the final decade of the nineteenth century and three kinds of positions emerged.

There were the ‘gold bugs’, such as President McKinley (seen in a cartoon in the previous step) who wanted a return to the gold standard. The goldbugs were largely identified with the Eastern bankers and the financial elite. There were the ‘populists’ who advocated a return to the bi-metal standard. This was a money which was backed by both silver and gold and which would have eased the shortage of ready currency. There were also the ‘green backers’, those who wanted a return to paper money and who were often associated with the working class.

And we can find this story – and can seem quite a dry boring story by itself – in some of the period’s most popular texts, such as L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

Symbolism in The Wizard of Oz

In 1964 Henry Littlefield – a teacher – published an article explaining the close correspondence between The Wizard of Oz and the frames of this debate – and successive writers (notably Hugh Rockoff) added to it. These writers placed particular importance on the fact that Dorothy’s shoes were actually silver in the original novella. (MGM gave her red shoes in the 1939 film to celebrate the possibilities of technicolour!) Dorothy’s silver shoes were seen by economic historians as crucial to the symbolic associations between the story and the politics of the moment.

These articles described the story in terms of the bimetal debates. In representing silver, Dorothy is seen to represent the populist movement. She comes from the West, she is naïve but good-hearted and optimistic about the future. She walks her silver shoes down the yellow brick road in the land of Oz (an abbreviation of the word ounce) and the image was taken to represent the bi-metal standard itself. The wizard – with his green city and land of make-believe – can be read as the greenbacks, as money that just exists through pure belief.

This allegory was given more support by the fact that the rest of the story fitted it so well. In the years before Baum wrote the novel, Jacob Coxey led an army of the unemployed to Washington to ask for paper money. The men that accompanied Coxey can also be read into the story of the Wizard of Oz. The Tinman represents the worker left unemployed and dehumanised by the long recession and the Strawman represents the farmer unable to work his land. Collectively, when they join Dorothy, they become Coxey’s Army – marching on Washington to ask for a new form of money. The wizard’s magic, in other words, is supported by nothing but self-belief and it this ‘gift’ that he gives to the Scarecrow and the Tinman. It is also in this sense, then, the Wizard functions as an allegory for money itself, because it exists only through belief.

So within this most famous of books in American literature is an allegory about money that historians and economists have been using for a long time. But what’s interesting is that they haven’t been able to agree whether the story is supporting populism or critiquing populism – what is Baum doing with it?

We can think about this question if we ask what else Baum is really telling us about how money works in this story. We need to ask not only what kind of money (gold, silver, or paper) but what money itself is for. And this opens us to an even more interesting history for this familiar children’s story.

Who was Lyman Frank Baum?

In the year 1900, Baum wrote another book ‘The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors’.

As an optimistic entrepreneur of his expansionist time, Baum had worked as a travelling actor, playwright, set designer, and journalist, but he discovered a passion for display designing the windows for his own shop, Baum’s Bazaar, in Aberdeen, South Dakota. This was a fancy goods shop in the middle of the worst depression America had ever known. Nobody could buy the things that Baum was offering so he gave his customers credit. And did they pay him back? No, they didn’t: the records show that when the shop went bust Baum had over 20 creditors on his books.

This credit was never repaid because such ‘open book’ credit, as it was called, is notoriously unreliable in the 1890s. Baum had no way of assessing the creditworthiness of his customers. Baum had no way of sharing information about his customers. Baum had no way of sharing the risk that lending this money involved or of getting the money back if the loan went bad. After the business folded Baum moved with his family to Chicago and this is where he wrote The Wizard of Oz.

It is possible to read the story not simply through the bimetal debates but through Baum’s experiences in the 1890s. It was a particular kind of economy, the consumer economy of the luxury goods store that relied on more secure forms of consumer credit, that also lay behind the fantasy of The Wizard of Oz.

What does the Emerald City represent?

Whilst Baum lived in Chicago the city hosted the 1893 World Fair. We know that Baum, and Walter Denslow the illustrator of the original story, were very influenced by the World Fair and visited it frequently. It seems quite likely that he got the idea for both his own shop and for the Emerald City from the palaces of fancy goods that were being exhibited in the Fair. Indeed, his own letters suggest that he had wanted his own shop to look like this as well – just on a smaller scale!

What’s so interesting about the Wizard’s Emerald City in Baum’s novella is that not only is it green but that it, unlike the Land of Oz that Dorothy first arrives in, does contain money. In Baum’s novella one of the first things she notes are the people who are buying green lemonade with green pennies. We can think about the money in the Emerald City, I want to suggest, and argue that Baum wasn’t simply advocating paper money in this story, the greenbacks that Jacob Coxey had marched to Washington to demand, but the possibility of the consumer credit that his own shop had failed for want of. When Baum gives us the Emerald City, in other words, he is giving us all the pleasures of consumerism, of perfumed sheets and of ornate dresses, and the credit that they rely on.

There is a very neat historical story that supports this. The person selling the actual lemonade in the real world fair, Aaron Nusbaum, used the money to buy Sears Roebuck – which became the main producer of instalment credit in early 20th America. In fact, the credit extended by Sears Roebuck catalogue allowed the rural population to participate in the rapidly expanding consumer economy of the 1890s. It succeeded, in other words, precisely where Baum had failed. What we can see behind Baum’s story is a history not only of gold and silver but a history of consumer credit: the money that shops themselves had started to create in the opening years of the twentieth century and that enabled the emergence of the consumer economy.

Why teach money through The Wizard of Oz?

Teaching money through The Wizard of Oz allows us to do lots of things. It allows us to think about the invention of money – that money didn’t always look the way it looks now and has taken different and contested forms. We can also begin to realise that the money that we have now is political in some way – that it serves some interests more than others.

It also allows us to think about how paper money works – if the wizard’s moment of belief is about the fact that paper money exists through trust. We all know it’s only made of paper or cotton or polymer but we act like it’s gold – in the same way that the scarecrow knows that the brains that the wizard gives him aren’t real but he wants to believe that they are so he does.

Finally, it also allows us to think about what money is for. The money in The Wizard of Oz is about a growing economy – is about consumerism (this is also true of the film, of course, which was made in 1939 and has been read as a response to the depression – for the filmmakers the wizard was Roosevelt and the city the New Deal where everything can be given). The film can also be taught as a way of thinking about what it is that we need to make us happy.

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