13 Facts About L. Frank Baum’s 'Wonderful Wizard of Oz'

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was a hit from the start. Published in 1900, the story of Dorothy and her friends the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion captured the public’s imagination. It wasn’t long before there was merchandising, a Broadway musical, a film, and a whopping 13 sequels. Truly, it was the Harry Potter of its day. 

1. Baum framed the pencil he used to write the novel. 

L. Frank Baum—former chicken rancher, traveling salesman, and theater manager—had already published two successful children’s books when he started The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1898. He finished the book in October 1899. He must have been proud of his work, for he framed the pencil stub and hung it on the wall of his study. On the attached paper he scrawled, “With this pencil I wrote the manuscript of The Emerald City.” 

2. He got the name “Oz” from his filing cabinet.

At first, Baum had trouble coming up with a name for the magical land Dorothy visits. Then one day he found himself looking at the filing cabinet in his study. There were three drawers marked “A to G,” “H to N,” and “O to Z.” And so Oz was born. 

3. Dorothy Gale was named after a niece who died.

Dorothy Gale is based on Dorothy Gage, the infant niece of Baum’s wife, Maud. She died in November 1898, right as Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The character Dorothy was Baum’s tribute to the lost baby girl.   

4. Baum never lived in Kansas.

Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Chicago. He’d been to Kansas only once when he and Maud were touring with his melodrama "The Maid of Arran." He may have picked Kansas because of the tornado that sweeps Dorothy away. In 1893, a cyclone ripped through the state, killing 31 people and destroying two towns. The writer Gore Vidal suggested this disaster may have inspired the setting of Baum’s book. 

5. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an episodic novel. 

Throughout the book, Dorothy follows a yellow brick road, which runs straight through the story. Periodically she goes off the road, has an adventure, then returns and continues her journey. Along the way, she meets a host of almost-forgotten characters, such as the Queen of the Field Mice, people made out of china, and the Kalidahs—creatures with the bodies of bears and the heads of tigers.

6. Dorothy’s shoes were silver, not ruby red.

In the book, Dorothy is given “silver shoes with pointed toes.” The color was changed for the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland because the filmmakers thought that ruby red looked better in Technicolor. 

7. Oz wasn’t a dream, after all.

Other differences between the movie and the book: Dorothy doesn’t meet Glinda until the end; rather, the Good Witch of the North is the one to greet her when she comes to Oz. The book doesn’t end with the wizard taking off in a hot air balloon—Dorothy travels south to find Glinda and has more adventures. And while Oz turns out to be a dream in the movie, it’s a real place in the book. When Aunt Em asks Dorothy where she came from, she says that she was in the Land of Oz, then adds, “I'm so glad to be at home again!" (“There’s no place like home” is a movie line.)

8. Baum assembled the first copy of the book himself.

When the first print of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz came off the press in May 1900, Baum was there to compile the pages. He then gave the book to his sister, Mary Louise Baum Brewster, writing on the manuscript, “This ‘dummy was made from sheets I gathered from the press as fast as printed and bound up by hand. It is really the very first book ever made of this story.”

9. The book sold out in two weeks.

Full distribution began in August. According to the publisher, the first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in two weeks, followed by a second printing of 15,000 and a third printing of 10,000. In November, there was a fourth printing of 30,000 and in January, a fifth printing of 25,000. That’s 90,000 books in the first six months. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remained a bestseller for two years. 

10. Baum followed up with The Wizard of Oz: The 1903 Musical Extravaganza.

Along with illustrator W.W. Denslow and composer Paul Tietjens, Baum set out to turn his book into a musical. Fred Hamlin, producer of the Grand Opera House in Chicago, is said to have taken on the play because the word “Wizard” was in the title. Apparently his family made a fortune with the medical tonic, Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. The Wizard of Oz opened in June 1902 in Chicago. Then it moved to Broadway, where it played for years. 

11. Baum had a falling out with his illustrator.

W.W. Denslow first worked with Baum illustrating 1899's Father Goose: His Book, a surprise bestseller. Denslow then illustrated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The men believed in the images so much that when the publisher balked on paying for color print, Denslow and Baum paid for the plates themselves. But as the two shared copyright for the book, they soon had a disagreement over who was responsible for its success. Tensions mounted during the musical, with Denslow insisting that as the costume designer, he should be paid the same as the writer and composer. The two men never worked together again. 

12. Baum kept writing sequels because of money problems.

Baum soon grew tired of writing the series and intended to stop after the sixth book, The Emerald City of Oz. But a year later, he filed for bankruptcy and had to resume writing the Oz books. The last sequel was Glinda of Oz, which was published posthumously in 1920. 

All and all, Baum was a prolific writer. He also wrote under several pseudonyms, including Edith van Dyne, author of the Aunt Jane’s Nieces series. In the end, he wrote over 50 novels, 80 short stories, hundreds of poems, and at least a dozen plays. 

13. You can watch the first film version of The Wizard of Oz.

Here’s a silent film version of the book, which was made by Selig Polyscope Company in 1910. 

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July 28, 2015 - 1:00am
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