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

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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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
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The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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